TURNER, Joseph Mallord William
(b. 1775, London, d. 1851, Chelsea)

Rain, Steam and Speed The Great Western Railway

before 1844
Oil on canvas, 91 x 122 cm
National Gallery, London

While in the 'Fighting Temeraire' Turner seemed to deplore the Industrial Revolution, his attitude in this, one of his last great works, is much more ambiguous. The 1840s was the period of 'railway mania' and the restless Turner appreciated the speed and comfort of this form of travel. An unreliable anecdote by Turner's champion, Ruskin, records the origins of this picture in a train ride during a rain storm, during which the artist is supposed to have stuck his head out of the window. Excited as ever by strong sensations, Turner replicates the experience in paint, although the viewer is imagined as seeing the approaching train from a high vantage point. The bridge was, and is, recognisable as Maidenhead Viaduct across the Thames between Taplow and Maidenhead, on the newly laid Great Western line to Bristol and Exeter. Begun on Brunel's design in 1837 and finished in 1839, the viaduct was the subject of controversy, critics of the GWR saying that it would fall down. The view is towards London; the bridge seen at the left is Taylor's road bridge, of which the foundation stone was laid in 1772.

Once again Turner relies on Claude for the diagonal recession from foreground to a vanishing point at the centre of the picture. The aims of the two artists, however, are very different. The exaggeratedly steep foreshortening of the viaduct along which our eye hurtles to the horizon is used to suggest the speed at which the locomotive irrupts into view through the driving rain, headlight blazing. Ahead of it, disproportionately large, a hare proverbially swiftest of all animals bounds across the tracks; we doubt if it will win the race and escape with its life. A skiff is on the river far beneath, and in the distance a ploughman stoically turns his furrow. Virtuoso swirls and slashes, and smears and sprays of paint, simulate rain, steam and speed to blur these figures of the old countryside. Exhilaration and regret are mingled with alarm; in a second we must leap aside to let the iron horse roar by.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.