Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed | Talks for All | National Gallery

Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed | Talks for All | National Gallery

A very warm welcome to you all
to the National Gallery for today’s lunchtime talk and also for those of you
who watched on YouTube. My name is Christina Bradstreet.
I’m the Courses and Events Programmer here at the National Gallery. And I have the delight to talk about my number one,
top National Gallery painting, which is Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam, and Speed
– The Great Western Railway’, of 1844. And I think what I really love
about this painting so much is the sense of speed of this train powering
through the landscape; thundering towards us. And I love the contrast between
this solid, black mass of the engine and the very ephemeral, atmospheric
sense of scudding showers and this rather fragile sunlight that’s flickering through the clouds
in this storm but actually in a very luminous way. And one way
that I think that you might think about getting into this painting, which will work for some of you
and maybe not for others, is to imagine poking your face
through the canvas. Imagine. And imagining everything
that would be coming at you, so imagining the wind
rushing into your face, taking your breath away, so you can barely breath, barely speak. Imagine the rain
lashing against your face, the cold wet sliding down your face. Imagine the taste of the rain
in your mouth… the grit perhaps of the coal, the soot getting into your eyes… and the taste of that. But also the sounds
that would be around you, so the sounds of the screams of the gale, the storm,
the thundering of the train on the tracks as it comes towards you and even perhaps the sound of the whistle, which Waldo Emerson,
the American transcendentalist described as the voice of the 19th century saying,
‘Here I am’. I love that quote. So you could imagine that or you could imagine finding
a place to be in the painting. And there’s actually so many places
that you can be in this painting. You could be a wind-tossed bird
up in the clouds, looking down on this scene. You could be a passenger on the train. And if you look very closely here – and you might need to come up
to the painting later or zoom in
on the National Gallery website – you’ll be able to see
the top hats of the figures here. There’s no roof on this carriage. This is a third-class passenger train. And, in fact, in 1844,
the Railway Regulation Act, which Gladstone pushed through, And in the original bill,
he asked for cheap train travel for workers commuting into the cities, so one penny travel, but also to have a roof protection over the heads
of the third-class passenger trains. And this was grudgingly taken up. Certainly, these passengers do not have
the roof overhead. You can see the top hats there. So, imagine yourself on the train
with the wind and the rain lashing at you and this landscape sliding by in a blur. You could imagine being the hare
on the track here. You’ll all say, ‘What hare’? This hare is a bit like a fairy… in that you have to believe
in order to be able to see it. And I believe. I can see its little white tip
on the ear there, the white paw of the legs
stretched out there, the hind leg there. And it’s running for its life. It’s man against nature here. And I’ve just been looking up, as you do, the top speed of a train
and the top speed of a hare. And I think they’re about the same,
about 55 miles an hour in 1844, so it really is a race for life
of man against nature here. For those of you
who don’t believe in the hare, even when you come in
and look really closely, I should say it would have been
much more obvious in 1844 than it is now. And we know this partly
from the critical reviews in the press, but also… because in 1856, I think… Sir Charles Eastlake,
who was the director of the Royal Academy where the painting was first shown but also of the National Gallery, he asked the conservation department
for the Royal Academy to top up the paint on the hare. Because the paint that is put last
onto a painting often sinks in. And this is maybe an afterthought
by Turner. It’s certainly one of the last things
that he put onto the painting, so the paint had sunken in. So he asked for it to be topped up. Also… …on the engravings
that Turner approved of the painting, it’s very clearly delineated there as is the puffs of steam
which have also sunken in over time. So you could be the hare. You could be a passenger
on the road bridge here. Actually, we don’t see any vehicles, but you could imagine yourself
on the road bridge there, so remembering that before the railways, really the fastest you could go
is the speed of a galloping horse, or the fastest you’re likely to go, so perhaps on a horse and cart,
trotting along gently on the road there. You could imagine being
on the little rowing boat here. And I just want you to notice – it will be hard for you to see
from the back – but just to notice that they are headed
in that direction, so the opposite way of the train. And that’s also the case here. So you could imagine yourself here
as the man in the field, ploughing the field there. He’s also going back
in the opposite direction. So that might be significant.
We’ll come back to that. Or you could imagine being
one of these Classical maidens, dressed in white there. So this is a nod by Turner to the kind of
painters that he really loved, like Poussin and Claude Lorrain, who put these Classical figures
into their landscapes. But might it also be a nod
to the new trainspotters, come out to wave at the train
as it goes past perhaps. So there are all these places
that you can be in this painting. And I think that’s part of the point
of this painting, that there isn’t a single perspective. It’s more of an experience,
a vortex of experiences, of sensations, of being in this place at this time
with this train thundering through, and in a moment, it will have passed. And yet, of course, there is
a very strong line of perspective, this line of the railway coming through. And, of course, Turner was
Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy schools. He taught artists how to do perspective
from 1811 onwards. And I don’t know about you, but I really do feel like the train is
coming out of the painting at us. I have on guided tours… Somebody once said to me that they felt
that they could stop the train, they could freeze it. But I think most people do feel
that it is coming at them. And I think that’s really
what Turner was going for. So it’s coming at us. So I think there is something
in this painting about time and about the idea of past,
and present and future. So the future is out here. The train hasn’t got to us yet. The present is here, where the train is. And, in fact, that’s really the only bit
of the train that’s in really sharp focus, the chimney there, where you can see
the light reflecting there. And then the past is back there. The past is gone. And if we think about it, how unusual is it to have
at the centre of a painting just nothing, nothingness, just a bit of cloud,
a bit of steam, nothing really. So this is incredibly innovative,
a coup for Turner, I think. I have to share with you a story that was published in one
of the critical reviews of the painting when the painting was shown
at the Royal Academy in 1844. And, of course, remember
that in that period of the 19th century, the National Gallery and the Royal Academy
shared its premises. So actually the Royal Academy was here
at Trafalgar Square. And the critics said, ‘You need to come down
to the Royal Academy and see this painting before the train hurtles
out of the painting and away down Charing Cross’. One of the things I think is
really remarkable about this painting is that Turner is embracing this subject of modernity, of industrial revolution,
of steam, and power and change, in this year 1844,
when he was 69 years old, so in his 70th year of life, a fairly good innings
in the Victorian age, and yet, he really is embracing
and tackling this subject. But what is he saying to us? Is he celebrating change? Is he glorifying this engine –
there’s a nod here – and this combat of the train
against the forces of nature, that the train is powering through,
unobstructed by this storm that’s going around it? Or is he lamenting the loss of some past golden age with this golden idyll of a landscape
here? Somebody on a guide tour once said to me that they saw this golden… atmospherics as a stage curtain that’s dropped down on the past here. Or is he saying something else? Is he saying maybe,
like it or not, change is coming, be on the train, don’t be left behind, don’t be on the track like the hare, don’t be, in our modern world,
the one who can’t use email and doesn’t know how to turn on
their laptop and use social media? Is that what he’s saying? And I can’t give you a definitive answer
to this. But I think that’s the joy
of this painting, the beauty of the painting that Turner is inviting us
to think about these things and to make up our own minds
on where we stand on this. I like to think that this is
Turner in old age looking back, reflecting on his lifetime. So going back to this little boat here. We know that Turner spent
a lot of time in his youth… …on and around the Thames Valley. And he did 12 oil sketches between 1806 and 1809 from a rowing boat. And we know that he went out
with his sketchbook – sketchbooks still exist – and with a parasol over his head
to keep the shade off. And come and look closely. You’ll see the parasol there. So I like to think
that this is Turner reflecting on how the pace of life has really changed
in his lifetime. And I like to think of him
sailing back into the past. Those days are gone. The days of the hand ploughman are gone. But of course, this is the period
of great excitement about the railways. This is the period,
in the early Victorian period, where the Victorians are buying up,
investing in stocks and shares like crazy before the bust that is to come. So, the first steam locomotive was 1806. And the first passenger trains are
the early 1830s. Stephenson’s Rocket was 1829. So we’re still in the early period
of the railways. And by 1844, there’s about just over 2,000 miles
of railway in Britain. By 1848, there’s 5,000 miles of railway. So you see it’s really growing
in that period. In 1844, there are about thirty million
passengers using the railways. So there is this great excitement
about it. Now you can travel at speed
across the country. Also, the passage
of communications, and goods and the implications for industry
that that brings. But there’s also a lot of anxiety
about railways as well. So just like
with the high-speed railways today all the articles we have in the press,
the letters to the editor, you see that in the Victorian period. So, the anxieties
about what we would now call Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
being carved up by this relentless growth of the railways, also anxiety about the calamities,
the catastrophes and tragedies that happen on the railway. In 1841, eight passengers died
on the Great Western Railway when a train derailed, I think,
because of a collapsed siding. And there were other tragedies as well
in this period. Just to say actually that the hare… in superstition, if you see a hare
running ahead of you, that is meant to… foretell a great tragedy
that’s going to happen, some kind of calamity So, is Turner predicting a broken axle,
a boiler explosion or even the collapse of Brunel’s bridge? Which I’ll come back to in a bit. So anxiety about accidents, but also about,
what does it do to your body and mind to be travelling at 55 miles an hour? And that sounds odd to us today, but what does it do to be on a train
with your body rattled and with no fixed landscape,
no fixed point of view, with the landscape sliding by in a blur? And what if you were a woman, and you had been reading the latest
Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel, the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ of the day,
that you’d picked up in paperback from the WHSmiths’ stand
at the railway station? What if you were reading that
while bring jolted along? What would that do
to a women’s nerves and body? So there was all these anxieties
about women’s mental health and the idea of hysteria. So what is Turner saying? What is his viewpoint? And I don’t know. And if you are watching this on YouTube,
you can write your comments about what you think
this painting meant to Turner and what it means to you as well. I’d really love to read those comments. I think that this painting is
so innovative… partly because Turner is showing a train. That in itself is a coup in 1844. There hadn’t been
that many paintings of trains, certainly not coming at you at speed. So sometimes you might see a small train
in the distance of a beautiful landscape but just going along the horizon line. There are prints where we have
this very similar perspective with the track coming out towards us, but those prints are
so carefully delineated that they look static,
the train looks static, rather than here where we have
this very Impressionistic effect. And of course, I’m using the word
Impressionistic anachronistically, because this is 1844, and the Impressionists are
a phenomena of the 1870s. When the painting is shown
at the Royal Academy, it is a sensation. It is shocking. But in a very positive way, you know, ‘Come down to the Royal Academy
to see this painting’. It is a very innovative painting,
but at the same time, I think that there are ways
that we could see this painting in a more traditional way,
and I’ll explain what I mean. So, Turner comes to landscape painting very much in the tradition of his heroes, painters like Claude Lorrain and Poussin, painters who, for them,
landscape is really a backdrop for a Classical mythological scene. And in fact, Turner paints
a number of landscapes that have a Classical
mythological subject. Although for him, the landscape
is becoming much more important and the Classical mythology is
the backdrop. It’s flipped. And this is very different from Constable. So we may sometimes think
about Constable’s paintings as being a bit chocolate-boxy today,
maybe because we’ve seen it on so many chocolates boxes
and tea towels, but his paintings were so revolutionary because they were not backdrops
for Classical mythological scenes. Constable was painting
the very ordinary lanes where he grew up in the villages
around Dedham in Essex, very ordinary scenes that wouldn’t have been seen
as worthy of painting before. And Turner’s not like that. If we look at this painting, we might think,
this isn’t a Classical mythological scene. This isn’t a painting
that just has landscape as a backdrop for a Classical story,
and, of course, that is correct. But I think we might start
to think about this painting in a Classical mythological way. And I say this because, apparently,
this broad gauge train, it’s a ‘Firefly’ class of locomotive. And the ‘Firefly’ class of locomotive have
names like Cyclops and Achilles, but also Actaeon, and Orion,
and Greyhound. And I think those three are
particularly interesting to me. So Actaeon. Think of Actaeon the hunter. Some of you may know
our painting by Titian, our great painting of ‘Diana and Actaeon’. Diana is the goddess of the moon
but also of the hunt. And she’s bathing in a glade
with her nymphs, and Actaeon, the hunter,
stumbles into her glade. And she is so furious
that he has seen her naked, that she turns him into a stag. And the stag is then ripped apart
by his own hounds. So is this the hunter and the hunted
perhaps? Interestingly,
I think that if the engines, the ‘Firefly’ class of locomotives have
names… that are Classical, Actaeon’s dogs have names that I think would make very good names
for locomotives, so they have names
like Tempest and Whirlwind. If we think about the name Orion… I mean, Orion is… probably one of two constellations that I can easily recognise
in the night’s sky. Orion was also a hunter. He was killed by Diana, who then turned him
into the constellation. So in the night’s sky,
Orion is forever chasing a hare, but he never catches up with it. So is there hope for our little hare here? I like to think so. Interestingly, Orion had three fathers, the god, Neptune, so the god of water, Jupiter, the god of air, and Apollo, the god of fire. So we’ve got fire, air and water. What does that make you think of? It makes me think of the steam engine, where the fire heats the water
that creates the steam. And this is ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’,
after all. Fire, air and water
then also makes me think about another traditional painting,
the idea of paintings of four elements, earth, air, fire and water. So in the National Gallery,
we have a series by Beuckelaer, a Flemish painter, each showing earth, air, fire and water
in an allegorical form. So again, that makes me think
of the steam train here. And in the painting,
we are awash with water here, the water of the River Thames
but also the rain. We’ve got earth of the ploughed field,
the iron of the tracks. We have air, this storm that is around us
but also the steam as well. What haven’t I mentioned? Earth, air, water… fire. We have the engine here at the front. So we’ve got this red
at the front of the engine. And, if anyone here is
really into their steam trains, you might say,
‘Well, you can’t see into the firebox from the front of the train
as it’s coming towards you’. And, of course, that’s true,
but I don’t think that Turner cares about accurately depicting a train. That’s not what this is about. He wants to give you the sense of a train. What do you think of
when you think of a train? Well, you think of fire,
you think of steam, you think of speed,
and that’s what he’s giving you. Apparently,
with a ‘Firefly’ class of locomotive, if it’s really thrashing it, then the smokebox
at the front of the train might just glow red at the edges, but if it was thrashing it, I don’t think it would be giving off
the steam in this way. You might correct me on that. But again, I don’t think
that Turner cares about that. I think he just really wants
to give the sensation, this vortex of sensation
of a train coming at you. So we might think about this as a four elements painting
perhaps as well. So, on one hand,
it’s a very innovative painting. On the other hand,
it has its roots in Classical painting. I’m not suggesting we should think of this
as Orion… or of this iron Actaeon
thundering through the landscape, startling Diana and her nymphs there. I’m not suggesting
that we necessarily read it quite as literally as that, but more that Turner is evoking
these thoughts and these layers of interpretation
that might arise for a Classically educated audience
looking at this painting in 1844. So, I… I think I’ll close by just encouraging you
to come and find the hare, see if you can find the hare, and do zoom in to the website as well… and just to say what a fantastic painting
this is again. It’s such an innovative painting in 1844. I do think about the audiences… He came to the Lumière brothers’ films
at the turn of 20th century with those early film footage
of steam trains that seem to be coming at the audience
in the cinema and how supposedly, audiences rushed
from their seats. And I wonder
how people felt about this painting, looking at this in 1844. I should just say something
about Brunel and this bridge. I did say I’d come back to this. So this is the bridge at Maidenhead. If you’ve ever travelled
from Paddington to Bristol, you’ll have been over this bridge,
although you wouldn’t have seen it. You can’t really see it from the train. And the bridge was so exciting. It was five years old in 1844. But when it was built,
it was such a sensation, because it spanned the River Thames in the fewest number of spans
for the period. And the story goes that… the powers that be
who had commissioned the bridge got nervous about it once it was built, so they asked Brunel to leave
the wooden infrastructure up. You can imagine how annoying
that must have been for him. But he agreed to it reluctantly. And then in 1849, there was a storm. The wooden structure fell down. And they went back to him and said,
‘Is it safe for the trains to pass?’ And he said, ‘Well, actually,
they have been all along’, because he left a little gap
between the wood and the metal structure. So just a final thought. I mentioned the word
Impressionistic before, and when Pissarro and Turner came
to the National Gallery in 1870 or 1871, this was a painting that really drew
their attention, and I’m sure it was
an inspiration for them. Thank you very much.

Dereck Turner

11 thoughts on “Turner’s Rain, Steam, and Speed | Talks for All | National Gallery

  1. Elizabeth Long says:

  2. TwitchyWitch95 says:

    Turner was a master of the layered meaning and his paintings always seem to say multiple things as once so I think it would be foolish to assign a still meaning to a painting that was so clearly for a multitude of attitudes to view. It's probably one of the few paintings that seems to not only invite but confirm the contradictions and conflict that the Victorian era felt about the arrival of steam power. Visually to me the storm evokes a close up of the yellowish steam and smoke produced by the engines; a perfect storm for the arrival of this new technology aided by the sideways slant indicating rain. The atmosphere is charged with power, certainty and inevitability just as a storm is often inevitable…. Only this storm is made of industrial power. Its also fascinating to see how the ideas of romanticism is being played off against the realities of the Victorian experience. More and more that pastoral dream is becoming simply that; a dream left behind in the wake of the trauma that was the industrial revolution. It would certainly fit alongside the pattern of Turner's past subjects that focused on mythology. A blunt force rocketing (heh) out of this romantic classical daydream with powerful storm cloud gathering. Interestingly enough the Broad gauge which lasted until the standardisation act 1846 and had to be replaced so there is an irony to the hare of tragedy because in a sense what can seem new then will be out stripped by the storms of progress



  4. Rodolphe Fonty says:

    I appreciate those talks a lot and it is great to be able to watch them as well. I miss quite a few of them as I am often away from London, so thank you to The National Gallery. Christina is always very clear and covers a lot.

  5. Pete's Guitar Lessons TV says:

    You would need to see this picture to appreciate it fully i think. Flat screens are the worst way to view paintings in my opinion, sadly. Loads of this painting reminds me of Titians work especially the odd front of the engine.

  6. jrsinsf says:

    I think this painting shares some of the sentiments of "The Fighting Temeraire", in terms of technology moving towards the future, heralding the end of the old and the emergence of the new.

  7. JiveDadson says:

    The first time I saw a Turner, I thought it was a shame that the museum would display such a terribly damaged painting. I was a little angry. I did not know that Turner painted that way.

  8. Tom Sanders says:

    Turner considered himself Irish, was a personage of colour, and probably a Muslim.


  9. Phaidrus says:

    Excellent presentation of Turner's masterpiece. Thank you for sharing.

  10. YouTuneIt says:

    This is one of my favorite all time paintings. So many other famous paintings i can't connect with, not this one.

  11. Roberto Concha says:

    I like how he painted the engine…..powerful and strong colors, really stands out !!

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