Charging Into The Modern Turner
Turner has out-prodiged almost all former prodigies. He has made a picture with real rain, behind which is real sunshine, and you expect a rainbow every minute. Meanwhile, there comes a train down upon you, really moving at the rate of fifty miles a hour, and which the reader had best make haste to see, lest it should dash out of the picture…. as for the manner in which ‘Speed’ is done, of that the less is said the better, -only it is a positive fact that there is a steam coach going fifty miles and hour.
The world has never seen anything like this picture . This was Thackeray’s response to Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed upon seeing it at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1844. A large canvas displayed in the place of honour on the back wall of the East room of the exhibition, the painting was at the time and important and provocative comment on modern technology in general and more specifically on the steam locomotive and the Great Western Railway that was featured so prominently in the title.
This painting was significant because although this was not the first time railways had been the depicted in art, it was the first time for this kind of subject matter to be taken up on such a large scale and for public display. Both Ian Carter and Gerald Finley assert that despite the criticism already written about this complex work it remains engaging and still retains layers of meaning that have not been brought to light.
Rain, Steam and Speed can be read as a celebration of new technology and the new Britain that was forming in its wake, a lament for a passing ‘golden’ age, or as Carter suggests as a combination of the two, it ‘is about loss but also about progress. To be more precise it is about the casualties of progress and the impossibility of not changing. ‘; In other words, this painting presents the viewer with a visual metaphor depicting the dialectic, between change and stasis, between the old and the new, that arises in the condition of modernity.
Using this perspective as a starting point, this paper will explore some of the themes of this difficult work and examine some of the issues that surround this still evocative painting. The ‘history of former ages exhibits nothing to be compared with the mental activity of the present. Steam which annihilates time and space, fills mankind with schemes for advantage or defense’;. The British public’s response to advances made in the field of science and to the new technology of the Industrial Revolution was mixed.
Gerald Finley says that for those who considered these new developments in a positive light it was reassuring that the ‘laws of science and technology were, after all rooted in nature and these developments seemed to promise widespread economic and social improvement. ‘; At the same time there were detractors and this was because of the perceived threat of further encroachment on what some considered to be the ‘natural order of things’. Railroads struck many at this time as the seminal achievement of the industrial age, so it is not surprising that public ambivalence extended to the steam locomotive and rail travel as well.
It signified to many the destruction of the countryside and a change in the old agrarian based social order. In conjunction with this shift, which was really a shift to a capitalist economy, the steam revolution fundamentally changed the fabric of peoples lives, it changed the way people experienced time and space, it shrunk the boundaries of their world and changed their imagined geographies. This had implications for the way people perceived the world at large and also imaged the nation. The subject matter of Rain, Steam and Speed is the Maidenhead railway crossing of the Thames.
A golden brown landscape punctuated by the river to the left takes up the bottom portion of the painting. The top half is tinged by a blue sky that is marked by swirls of gold and white, which straighten around the around the locomotive, creating vertical lines above and behind its carriages and at the end and before the locomotive forms parallel vertical lines. Out of this comes the train, advancing along dark parallel iron rails, which are executed to look as though they are of infinite length. The eye is drawn to the ‘misty limitless distance’;.
The speed in the title is suggested by the definition of the rail line at two points, this also serves to concentrate attention on the machine element, the locomotive. In reference to this subject matter Rodner says, “Turner’s choice of a railroad subject not only fit the mood of the times but also completed his artistic program of utilizing modern technology to reaffirm fundamental truths on the human condition. At the same time it forced him to find ways to realize, with paint, the essentials of mechanized energy. ” The rest of this discussion will shed some light on this statement.
Initially it is useful to examine the painting as a whole, and look at it as a traditional landscape, Ian Carter describes the ways that this landscape can then be read in terms of classical figures and representations. The most important of his observations to this discussion of the work is Carter’s assertion that in this context, the ploughman in the painting, rather than being just a symbol of the age that is passing, can be read as ‘a reference to Virgil and Horace and through them, to routine pastoral conventions.
These pastoral conventions, employed in landscape painting, were a strategy used in England (since the late seventeenth century) to legitimize the power and wealth of emergent agrarian capitalist estates by making them appear timeless and part of a ‘natural’ order. These conventions, drawn from classical writers, maintain that human action is set within ‘a tamed, a cultivated natural world.
The ordered world of this ‘tamed nature’ would be understood in reference to its opposite, ‘wild nature’ — usually associated with death and disorder — which threatens its fragile harmony. To a contemporary conservative public, railways came to be associated with this kind of threatening disordering force. This can be witnessed in the works of contemporary writers, (for example, Ruskin, Wordsworth, and Dickens) who viewed railways as agents of destruction, which were fundamentally altering not only the physical landscape but the social order as well.
These changes were viewed as disruptive, they had the effect of bringing the neo-pastoral celebration of the so called ‘natural order’ under scrutiny; changing circumstances and new opportunities afforded by the railways threatened this interpretation of the world and its ‘natural’ hierarchy. A new capitalist ethic was really the driving force for these changes, the railways were simply a product of capitalism and a vehicle for its continued proliferation.
As David Harvey explains, capitalism is…a revolutionary mode of production, always restlessly searching out new organizational forms, new technologies, new lifestyles, and new modalities of production and exploitations. ” Thus, this capitalist expansion and the industrialization that followed in its wake elicited a huge change in the lives of nineteenth century Britons. This sense of disruption is taken up in Rain, Steam and Speed with its depiction of a pastoral, rural idyll cut down the middle by a speeding, ‘wild’ locomotive.
Instead of trying to make the locomotive blend in with the landscape it traverses, naturalizing it and thereby diffusing its threatening connotations , Turner imparts a sense of the rupture it is causing in the landscape and by extension to the social fabric as well. He does this by employing the aesthetic system of the Sublime. The locomotive could boast a majority of those affective qualities, which Burke had assigned to the sublime; it possessed a demonic appearance, was an object of great size and possessed great power.
It also emitted deafening noises and it obscured its own form through its high speeds and its emissions of large amounts of steam and smoke. Furthermore its infamy was intensified through its notoriety as a source of spectacular and often fatal accidents. The sublime was an aesthetic used to evoke a feeling of awe or fear, and Burke says that all things that elicit this response can be said to be sublime. This can include things that have an ‘infernal appearance, are powerful or of great size, are enveloped in obscurity or darkness, and which emit loud sounds’.
Often the sublime was evoked to create a sense of suprahuman powers in action, to create a sense of the disparity between human endeavour and ‘timeless forces’, for example, nature or the passage of time. In this case, the unstoppable momentum of technological change (and by extension change in the fabric of everyday life) that seemed to be only tenuously under human control could be one of these ‘timeless forces’. James Hamilton explains that the fallibility of human endeavour was a theme dear to Turner’s heart.
His evocation of the sublime in this case could mean both the fallibility of the technology (it was prone to spectacular accidents) and the fallibility of the patterns of human life that the technology was altering. In Finley’s discussion of Rain, Steam and Speed, he examines the role of the sublime in earlier works that take up industrial subject matter. He asserts that many of those qualities ascribed to this aesthetic could be found on industrial sites and that sublimity was used to elevate this new and unusual subject matter.
Turner’s steam locomotive, as an industrial image, is similarly sublime. In fact, Finley asserts that the painting as a whole “is an embodiment of energy; and energy as an expression of power is a quality of the sublime. An equally important quality of the sublime is obscurity. The distinctive title given by Turner to this subject seems highly appropriate for a sublime subject: rain, steam and speed are elements and qualities which either veil or effectively blur forms and thereby render them obscure. The sublime is also generated here by the immediacy of the train image.
The train in the painting is thus transformed by Turner’s use of the sublime. It becomes the agent of disaster that threatens the ideal pastoral landscape, and in so doing no longer supports the pastoral order. As a way of communicating the sublime nature of the industrial subject matter in Rain, Steam and Speed Turner paints the locomotive using Rembrantesque colours, and dramatic chiaroscuro. Gage says that Turner looked to Rembrant in order to find a pictorial language that expressed the drama of modern times.
The dark train passes through a landscape rendered in gold, creams and watery blues and creates a striking contrast to it. This palette is a clue to an understanding of the work — it acts as metaphor for a model of historical decline that has its roots in Hesiod. Ages referred to as Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron were classical references Turner would have assumed the viewers of his painting would be familiar with. Carter says that by using this choice of colour, he ‘shows us a golden age ravished by a train, the iron age’s harbinger and embodiment.
This iron age in Hesiod is a period of complete moral breakdown, and there was a real perception that civilization as the early Victorians knew it was being fundamentally altered by this technology at this time in the 1840,s. There is a gendered aspect to this painting that is also supported by Tuner’s choice of colours, the landscape rendered in pastels is ruptured by the ‘ochrous railways single diagonal knife thrust’;. This dramatic configuration underlines the distinction between nature, associated with the passive and the female, and culture associated the rational and the male.
In this context, the painting can be read as the domination of (female) nature overpowered by (male) technology and although this can be viewed on the one hand as destructive, it could also be viewed on the on the other hand as a celebration of the mastery of ‘man’ over nature. It is important not to forget that although there was a lot of fear and uneasiness surrounding the development of the railway, people were also fascinated by it. Although Turner may have shared these reservations about this new technology, it is reasonable to assume that he was also caught up, to a certain extent, in the optimism about the railways.
Rain, Steam and Speed is held up by Hamilton as an acknowledgment of the engineering feats of I. K. Brunel, the man who designed the bridge at Maidenhead that is so prominently featured in the work. This bridge had the lowest and flattest arches of any that had come before, and critics stridently voiced their concerns that it would fall — it didn’t.
Turner ally’s himself with Brunel and publicly applauds his engineering prowess by depicting ‘a steam engine passing both along Brunel’s line and over his Maidenhead Bridge and in a violent storm. One could extend this to say that Rain, Steam and Speed was also an acknowledgment of the feat of steam locomotive technology in general which was the force that created the need for great engineering feats like Brunel’s in the first place.
The ‘collision between celebration and regret’; in reference to railway expansion is the social perspective infused in this painting. Public sentiment was divided between hope for the new modern possibilities the railways afforded, and trepidation over further destruction of the countryside and traditional ways of life that would inevitably come in the wake of and extended rail network.
This is not the whole picture however, the effects of the expansion of railways, were more deeply consequential and insidious than the above would suggest. Finley says: “Steam driven machinery having penetrated the popular experience was as much responsible for the shifts in and the shaping and directing of human lives as it was for the physical and cultural changes in the countryside. ” This shaping and directing of human lives manifested itself in a variety of ways.
Many of the strategies introduced to facilitate the development of the railways (‘to mitigate their potential for technical and financial mayhem’;) had lasting implications on people’s lives. These strategies, such as standardized time, uniform industrial organization, and regulation of private activities have become established features of modern life, so established in fact that they are rarely questioned. These were not the only effects that altered people’s lives in this way, but it would be impossible in the scope of this paper to go into all of them.
It is important to note however one other way that railways impacted the lives of Britons, and that is the way that it changed people’s conceptions of time and space. England had shrunk in size with the advent of railway travel. Due to greater travel speeds the time it took to travel over a given distance was greatly reduced, this was envisioned as a shrinkage of space. Time and space seemed to have collapsed. Although he does not take up issues of time and space compression explicitly, Turner does take up the issue of speed (as the title Rain, Steam and Speed would suggest, which is the intersection of time and space.
It seems reasonable then that the train in the painting would signal that sense of the world getting smaller to a public who was just getting used to this disorienting aspect of speed. This sense of shrinking space may have also have called up associations of the new image of a progressive ‘modern’ nation (Britain), and this would in turn bring up associations with the empire — popularly thought of as a progressive, civilizing force — at large.
Space and time were familiar concepts to Turner, and in earlier works he had manipulated space and time concepts effectively. One of the ways that Turner manipulated these elements was in the way ‘he would call upon history, with its wholly different order of time (time past but with lessons or implications for the present or the future), as a way to engage his audience in a dialogue about the interaction humans in, and with nature.
Adhering to concepts of pictorial unity he portrayed protagonists in an appropriate local and historical context for whatever action or event was being depicted. Finley says that, “In Rain, Steam and Speed Turner seems to have adopted a similar point of view; indeed in this work the interrelationship and interdependence of space and time seem to have achieved a decisive pictorial formulation. The locomotive, which steams diagonally forward into the picture’s foreground, seems to exist in the present, leaving the past behind it, but it is ready to plunge inexorably into the future.
The ploughman evokes the past, and provides the contrast for the locomotive that functions as the present. The juxtaposition of these two things Finley says, implies something about the rapidity of technological change, and suggests the way ‘the easy going past give[s] way to the quick living future. ‘; This is an accurate description of the way the compression of time and space affect the way people view the future and experience the present.
Rather than looking at the locomotive in strictly general terms as an agent in wider processes leading to this ‘quick living future’;, it is interesting to look at the ways in which the locomotive itself was looked at within the context of its time (it is after all the focal point for the painting). Thus far, the locomotive has been discussed as an aspect of a larger shift to new technology and in reference to widespread cultural changes, its use as an agent of the sublime within the painting has also been discussed.
The only thing missing which may provide some more insight into popular sentiment about the railway, is an examination of how the locomotive itself was portrayed in popular forms, to do this Carter examines contemporary caricature. In these depiction’s he finds anxieties surrounding the change that the railways are eliciting, and that the locomotive becomes the personification of the disruption that this is causing. A good example is a cartoon by George Cruikshank titled The Railway Dragon in which the machine becomes a monstrous mechanized animal.
Linking this cartoon with Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed Carter comes up with a chilling analogy, “George Cruikshank’s The Railway Dragon reverses over its prey, with steam gauges for eyes and firebox door for ravening mouth. The shape of this locomotive back head precisely recalls Cruikshank’s earlier stocking capped and fire-belching Jacobin monster.
The front elevation of Turner’s locomotive echoes these caricatures…accept this similarity and that white splodge [on the smokebox front] becomes the key to Turner’s entire painting: the modest space into which a doomed old world must place its head so the Dr. Guillot’s machine — that epitome of enlightened rationality, invented to suppress the ancien regimes haphazard axework — may do its fatal work.
Form follows function. This rational machine, this Jacobin machine will, indeed, mean the end of civilization as those who viewed the painting at the 1844 Royal Academy exhibition had known it. No wonder, perhaps that Rain, Steam and Speed disturbed that audience, fifty years after the terror. ” In Rain, Steam and Speed Turner paints a hare running ahead of this ‘Jacobin monster’.
It does not get run down, and Finley suggests that in doing this he ‘expresses a vigorous metaphor: he has created dialectic between nature and the machine…’; This may be the case but the more interesting question, perhaps, is why Turner does this. Turner has elevated the industrial subject matter of this painting so that it participates in a dialogue about sublime forces. This narrative calls up the struggle between the timeless forces of nature and civilization (the machine mentioned above); between the past and the present-quickly-becoming-future.
The subject matter of this painting, so much embedded in its particular historical context and the anxieties of one age passing in the face of another, is literally, with this evocation of the sublime, taken out of time. Thus the narrative obscures the human beings caught up in this struggle (the displaced rural worker, the aristocrat losing power), and becomes about the struggle itself. This is important to get an understanding of the painting at its deepest level. It is, as was suggested at the beginning of this paper, a visual metaphor for the experience of ‘the modern age’.
It participates in the discourse about change and progress that arises in the condition of modernity, by calling up the dialectic between the (often devalued) past, and the present becoming future (i. e. change/progress) that defines it. The assertive locomotive, harbinger of the modern world, that charges into the center of this painting make clear the urgency of this, this dark ‘rational’ machine must tear through the fields of a ‘natural’ golden age, for this is what it means to be modern. This evocation of the dialectic nature of modernity was at the heart of the colonial project.
In an age of imperialism where the dominant discourse was social Darwinism a nation had to become a ‘progressive, civilizing force’ in order to justify its imperialist/capitalist endeavors (enacted against a ‘less civilized’ anachronistic other — at home and abroad), as well as stave off colonization by a more progressive adversary. Thus, even though this painting embodies, on one level, the contemporary anxieties about new technology, it also participates in a larger discourse about progress, capitalism, colonialism and ultimately the condition of modernity itself.