A-Level: J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed — The Great Western Railway

In a time when horses were the fastest mode of transit, the railroad was as radical as Turner’s abstraction.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed — The Great Western Railway, oil on canvas, 1844 (National Gallery, London)

Rain, Steam, and Speed — The Great Western Railway was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844. It depicts the Maidenhead Railway Bridge (completed 1838) looking east, across the River Thames between Taplow and Maidenhead.

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:03] We’re looking at Turner’s great painting “Rain, Steam, and Speed — The Great Western Railway,” which dates from 1844.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:12] A time when the railway was really crisscrossing the British landscape.

Dr. Harris: [0:17] Right, and was really a brand new way of traveling and connecting cities and people to each other.

Dr. Zucker: [0:23] And would really change not only the landscape, but change society incredibly dramatically. It was probably the most potent symbol of industrialization.

Dr. Harris: [0:32] Turner really captures that feeling of the speed of the train coming toward us, the rain pounding at the train and the bridge as it moves toward us. I mean, I can almost feel the wetness of this day and hear the sound of the train.

Dr. Zucker: [0:47] Well, the carriages were open and so people really would have felt that. You think about what the speed of a train meant. Of course, the trains then in 1844 didn’t move at the speed that trains move now, but think about the speed with which people had traveled through history up to this point. People had either walked or they had taken a horse.

Dr. Harris: [1:07] If you were lucky, you took a carriage with multiple horses and could go a little bit faster, but not much.

Dr. Zucker: [1:12] A little bit faster, so that means you might have gone 15 miles an hour. For the first time, people are being able to be transported mechanically.

Dr. Harris: [1:21] I think it’s hard for us to recognize the radicalness of the railway.

Dr. Zucker: [1:26] And the kind of impact it must have had on the landscape. Part of this is a nostalgia for what’s lost, right? The notion of the violence of this hulking iron monster ripping through the landscape. It must have been loud.

Dr. Harris: [1:39] Surrounded by agricultural fields, perhaps, the way that Turner shows us a farmer on the right edge there. I think you looked out at the landscape of this period, and you saw those contrasts between old rural England and a new industrial England.

Dr. Zucker: [1:53] That’s absolutely right. On the left, you see that in the bridge, as well. In the extreme left, you see an old stone bridge. Here, on the right, you have a modern industrial brick bridge meant to carry this railway.

Dr. Harris: [2:03] So much of this is about the subject, but it’s also about, obviously, the way Turner painted it. The atmospheric effects that we associate with Turner, this gold, blue, and brown coloring and this thick impasto of paint that we can tell has been applied with a palette knife that’s particularly thick toward the center and center line of the painting and in the upper right.

Dr. Zucker: [2:25] It’s so abstract that much of the painting is actually unreadable in terms of anything specific. It is, you said, atmospheric. It’s atmospheric almost in an operatic way. Three-quarters of this painting is nothing but the variations of color and tone of the sky, of the atmosphere of the rain, and the way in which the rain creates a unity and dissolves any kind of hard form.

Dr. Harris: [2:51] Any kind of specific reading of forms.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] The only one that comes through with any real clarity is the black iron of that chimney of that train.

Dr. Harris: [2:59] That’s true, and it’s only the chimney. The rest of the train itself kind of dissolves into paint as well.

Dr. Zucker: [3:04] That idea of the confrontation between the industrial power of man and nature is probably most oddly juxtaposed by the train steaming towards a small rabbit in the lower right-hand corner that seems to be hopping away as quickly as possible. A rabbit, of course, a symbol of speed itself.

Dr. Harris: [3:22] I’m reminded that it’s the power of paint that communicates to us more than the subject. It’s really about the textures, and the colors, and the globs of paint and the dissolution of form here that communicate this idea of rain and atmosphere and speed and sound. It would have been a very different painting had it been painted differently.

Dr. Zucker: [3:45] This painting is ostensibly about industrialization, about this powerful new thing, this train. But the painting really is about the act of painting itself.

[3:56] It is about the portrayal of this much more complex and much more subtle relationship between nature and man because of Turner’s ability to handle tone and form with a kind of abstraction that is incredibly brave for this early period of the 19th century.

Dr. Harris: [4:11] It really is. It’s close to the abstraction of the 20th century in many ways.

[4:14] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-Level: J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed — The Great Western Railway," in Smarthistory, May 18, 2017, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/j-m-w-turner-rain-steam-and-speed-the-great-western-railway-2/.