Rain, Steam and Speed (1844)

Turner, Joseph Mallord William (1775-1851)

Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway
Oil on canvas, 91 x 121.8 cm
National GalleryLondon

A steam engine rushes towards us as it speeds along a bridge through the rain. The bridge is the Maidenhead Viaduct, which crosses the Thames between Taplow and Maidenhead on the newly laid Great Western line to Bristol and Exeter. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the viaduct was completed In 1838 and in use from July 1839. We are looking east towards London as the train heads towards the west of England. The arched bridge on the left is Taylor’s road bridge, built in the 1770s. The engine, of the ‘Firefly’ class, pulls a train of unroofed open-goods wagons in which passengers, paying the cheapest rates, could travel. Average engine speed on the Great Western Railway (GWR) in 1844 was 33 mph, but on long level stretches, such as the Maidenhead Viaduct, an unprecedented 60 mph could be reached – faster than any galloping horse.

The 1840s was a period of ‘railway mania’, and by 1844 the GWR had already constructed over 100 miles of line, which Turner could have travelled on during the previous six or seven years. We cannot be certain if this picture was inspired by a recent journey, or if he had travelled on this stretch of track. However, in an account told to the critic John Ruskin, Jane O’Meara (later Mrs John Smith) related how, as a young woman aged eighteen, she had been travelling to London on that line during a stormy night in June 1843. A fellow passenger – ‘with the most wonderful eyes’ – had leaned out of the train window for almost ten minutes when the train had come to a halt at Bristol during the storm. On seeing Rain, Steam and Speed at the Royal Academy, she claimed the passenger must have been Turner.

Even if Turner had not travelled on this line, he would have known contemporary engravings of trains moving diagonally and at speed through the landscape. These engravings may have given him the idea for a railway painting based upon the principles of perspective he had taught himself through his study of Poussin and Claude, and which he had included in his lectures as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy. Turner had previously used this type of diagonal recession with great effect – for example, in the dramatically foreshortened perspective of Westminster Bridge in The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Here he uses the exaggeratedly abrupt foreshortening of the viaduct, which our eye follows to the horizon, to suggest the speed with which the train bursts into view through the rain. Turner further accentuates this effect by reducing the double rail track across the bridge to a single narrow line.

The art historian John Gage observed: ‘the title of the picture makes clear that Turner was painting not a view of the Great Western Railway, but an allegory of the forces of nature.’ These forces of nature include the rain, which falls steadily but not so heavily as to entirely obscure the view or the gleams of sunlight that fall on the woods and fields either side of the bridge. Steam is represented by the three small puffs emerging from the engine’s funnel – in 1844 engines did not produce the great clouds of steam often associated with steam locomotives. Speed is most obviously embodied by the train itself, but Turner included another detail – a hare, running along the track ahead of it. A late addition, the hare was lightly brushed on top of the existing paint, roughly midway along the rail track, and is now invisible because the paint has become transparent with age. It can be seen in an 1859 engraving of the painting by Robert Brandard, who specifically sought to clarify details in the painting. According to the artist George Leslie, who as a boy had watched Turner putting the final touches to the painting the day before it went on public exhibition in 1844, the hare, not the train, was meant to represent speed. Turner further emphasises the theme of speed by including two small details. On the river on the left, you can see a small boat and, barely visible near the right edge of the picture, a man drives a horse-drawn plough. Both the boat and the plough are examples of relatively slow, non-mechanised activity. As in The Fighting Temeraire, Turner contrasts the pre-industrial with the modern. (NG)