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Turner, Rain, steam, and speed – the great western railway

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed -- The Great Western Railway, oil on canvas, 1844 (National Gallery, London) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker

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.

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

FEMALE SPEAKER: We're looking at Turner's great painting "Rain, Steam, and Speed-- The Great Western Railway," which dates from 1844. MALE SPEAKER: A time when the railway was really crisscrossing the British landscape. FEMALE SPEAKER: Right. And was really a brand new way of traveling and connecting cities and people to each other. MALE SPEAKER: And would really change not only the landscape, but change society incredibly dramatically. It was probably the most potent symbol of industrialization. FEMALE SPEAKER: 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. MALE SPEAKER: Well, the carriages were open, and so people really would have felt that. You think about what the speed of the train meant. I mean, 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. FEMALE SPEAKER: And if you were lucky, you took a carriage with multiple horses and could go a little bit faster. But not much. MALE SPEAKER: But a little bit faster. So that means you might have gone 15 miles an hour. And for the first time, people are being able to be transported mechanically. FEMALE SPEAKER: I think it's hard for us to recognize the radicalness of the railway. MALE SPEAKER: And the kind of impact it must've had on the landscape. Part of this is a kind of nostalgia for what's lost, right? The notion of the violence of this hulking iron monster ripping through the landscape. And it must have been loud. FEMALE SPEAKER: Surrounded by agricultural fields, perhaps, the way that Turner shows us a farmer on the right edge there. I think you look out at the landscape of this period, and you saw those contrasts between an old rural England and a new industrial England. MALE SPEAKER: That's absolutely right. I mean, 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. FEMALE SPEAKER: But so much of this is about the subject. But it's also about, obviously, the way Turner painted it. The atmosphere effects that we associate with Turner, this kind of gold and blue and brown coloring, and these thick imposto 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. MALE SPEAKER: It's so abstract that much the painting is actually unreadable in terms of anything specific. It is, you said, atmospheric. And 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, in a sense, the rain creates a kind of unity and dissolves any kind of hard form. FEMALE SPEAKER: Any kind of specific reading of forms, right? MALE SPEAKER: The only one, really, that comes through with any real clarity is the black iron of that chimney of that train. FEMALE SPEAKER: That's true. And it's only the chimney. The rest of the train itself kind of dissolves into paint, as well. MALE SPEAKER: 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. FEMALE SPEAKER: I'm reminded that it's the power of hate that communicates to us more than the subject, that it's really about the textures and the colors and the globs of paint and the dissolution of form that communicate this idea of rain and atmosphere and speed and sound. It would've been a very different painting had it been painted differently. MALE SPEAKER: This painting is ostensibly about industrialization, about this powerful new thing, this train. But the painting really is about the act of painting itself. 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. FEMALE SPEAKER: It really is. I mean, it's close to the abstraction of the 20th century in many ways.