Fear and Fascination

    11 February - 13 May 2012 in our Art Gallery. FREE

    Experience the fear and fascination surrounding the birth of early railways, with previously unseen pieces of our earliest railway artwork. Exhibition and museum entry is free.

    Background | Gallery | Artists | Further reading | Previous exhibitions


    The railways brought change to Britain on a massive scale. Before 1830, much of the landscape was untouched by the industrial world. Railway lines brought tunnels and viaducts that changed the look of the landscape, making an enormous visual impact.

    In prints and paintings, artists captured the sense of awe and wonder people felt on first seeing these enormous constructions. Cartoons reveal the anxiety and fear people felt about the dangers of railway travel and the black humour they used to deal with these feelings. Railway companies countered this by commissioning images which showed railway lines in harmony with the landscape, and which were designed to calm concerned public and landowners.

    A selection of the pictures that will be on display in the exhibition.

    'The Pleasures of the Rail Road - Caught in the Railway!', c 1840
    Hand-coloured etching by Henry Heath showing a runaway locomotive chasing a small group of people. The locomotive shown in this cartoon is the 'Northumbrian'; one of eight locomotives based on the 'Rocket'. Published by S Gans of Southampton Street, London.

    'Past and Present', 1845
    Colour print showing a derelict coach in a farmyard with a steam railway in the background, to illustrate the demise of travel by coach in favour of the railways. In the distance is a pristine newly built station. Printed by Leighton Bros.

    Working shaft, Kilsby Tunnel, Northamptonshire, 8 July 1837
    Wash drawing by John Cooke Bourne, from a collection of views of the construction of the London & Birmingham Railway (LBR). 18 working shafts were sunk to construct the Kilsby Tunnel, which took two years to complete, cost three times the estimate, and claimed the lives of 26 workers.

    Construction of the Doric Arch, Euston Station, London, October 1837
    Lithograph of a wash drawing from a collection of views on the construction of the London & Birmingham Railway by John Cooke Bourne.

    1. 'The Pleasures of the Rail-Road’, 1831
    Satirical coloured etching by Henry Hughes illustrating the dramatic effects of a boiler exploding during a railway journey. In the early days of the railways this was a relatively frequent occurrence. Published by S Gans of Southampton Street, London in 1831.

    ‘Bristol Station’, 1846
    Lithograph drawn and lithographed by John Cooke Bourne (1814-1896), showing an interior view of Bristol station on the Great Western Railway (GWR). Printed by C F Cheffins

    'Hold Hard There', 1850
    Coloured engraving by J H Englehart, after H Alkin, showing a fox hunt meeting spilling onto a railway track. As a horse and rider rear up on the right side of a locomotive, the fox hounds from the meet run around in front of the engine.

    'Travel to and fro and knowledge shall be encreased', 1850
    Pen and ink drawing for a cartoon, showing a locomotive boiler exploding, hurling the driver and passengers into the air. This cartoon alludes to both public fears about the railways and the spreading of knowledge through travel.

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    Many of the artists who first made images of the railways are unknown today but you can find out more about some of them on Wikipedia.

    Remember anyone can edit Wikipedia, so if you spot an error or have something to add, don't tell us – go ahead and edit.

    Further reading

    Although railways only began making a real impact on people’s lives in the 19th century, the ideas behind them were much older. More about the development of the railways

    Our art collection contains hundreds of images made in the first few decades of railways in Britain. Artists have drawn inspiration from the railways since the first line opened. More about the different ways artists have shown the railways

    For more on our art collection, see the National Railway Museum blog.

    Previous exhibitions

    Upcoming exhibitions

    Hints for holidays, experience the British seaside holiday
    26 May - 2 September

    Transport yourself to the British seaside past in our new art gallery exhibition. Immerse yourself in brightly coloured prints and some familiar scenes from some of our best-loved holiday destinations. Explore the advertising, glamour and excitement of a summer holiday trip with rarely seen images from our collection.
    This exhibition is part of the 'Art in Yorkshire' project, supported by Tate.

    Funded by The Foundation for Sport and the Arts.

    Picture credits:

    • Past and Present: © Science Museum Pictorial / Science & Society Picture Library -- All rights reserved.
    • Working Shaft: © NRM Pictorial Collection / Science & Society Picture Library -- All rights reserved.
    • Bristol Station: © NRM Pictorial Collection / Science & Society Picture Library -- All rights reserved.

    Background: John Cooke Bourne: Construction of the Doric Arch, Euston Station, London, October 1837.