The artist's eye

500 years of visual representation.


The excavation of Olive Mount Cutting, Liverpool, on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, by T T Bury, February 1831.
Credit: National Railway Museum

Although we associate the birth of railways with the invention of the steam engine in the early nineteenth century, the earliest representations of railways were made over five hundred years ago.

These representations show miners in France, Germany and Central Europe pushing wagons along the simple wooden tracks they laid to transport spoil and ore smoothly along underground shafts.

The first illustration of a steam locomotive was produced in about 1803 by Richard Trevithick, a working drawing for his pioneering Coalbrookdale tram engine, which was never actually built.

The earliest artistic rendering of a steam locomotive appeared on a print promoting rides behind Trevithick’s engine Catch-me-who-Can. When the first public railways opened some years later they provoked enormous interest. The directors of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway engaged the publisher Rudolf Ackermann and artist T T Bury to produce images of the construction and operation of the line, hoping to encourage investment, overcome opposition from local landowners and demonstrate that the railway was safe and efficient.

Yet as travel became cheaper all human life could be seen on railways.

Bury’s illustrations were printed using the new lithographic process and proved such a success that Ackermann immediately produced a new series, by Isaac Shaw. These were profile views of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway’s locomotives and rolling stock and for many people must have been the first representation they ever saw of this revolutionary mode of transport.

In the 1830s and 1840s artists produced over 2,000 railway lithographs, many of them at the request of company directors. Some, such as John Cooke Bourne’s views of the construction and operation of the London & Birmingham and Great Western Railways, were published in elegant bound volumes. These were superb images, concentrating not only on the scale of the work, but the human angle too.

The dramatic and heroic scale of construction was sometimes exaggerated by artists for greater effect, as in Bury’s 1831 view of Olive Mount cutting. Most of the early railway artists were well trained in the depiction of landscape and buildings, but they struggled to capture the complexities of the vehicles. Their locomotives often appeared oddly stilted, as in Calvert’s 1825 view of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway at Newton. In Calvert’s case this is hardly surprising, as his illustration was completed five years before the line opened. However, even the accomplished Bourne, in his otherwise excellent illustration of the interior of Bristol station, gave the engine curiously splayed wheels.

At first even the landscapes seemed new, divided by the railway’s harsh, straight lines or distorted by structures like Rainhill’s ‘skew bridge’. Soon, however, artists were commissioned by companies to show railways in harmony with the surrounding environment. Railways became part of the landscape, and came to be used regularly as decorative features in scenic views.

These early railway prints were expensive, sometimes costing the equivalent of a week’s wages for a labourer. They sold well at first, but eventually the novelty wore off. Disillusioned by financial scandals and perhaps a little bored with what seemed to be everyday technology, the public turned away from railway illustrations.

From the mid-nineteenth century most railway art was confined to guidebooks or satirical observation on railway politics. Yet as travel became cheaper all human life could be seen on railways, and artists like Abraham Solomon, W P Frith and George Earl used stations or trains as settings for their narrative paintings, which commented on Victorian society and its class divisions.

The outstanding exception was J M W Turner’s 1845 oil painting Rain, Steam and Speed, showing a Great Western Railway train surging across the bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead. This extraordinary painting has been variously interpreted as an allegory of the destructive power of technology, or as a contest between machine and nature, man and death.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century a new wave of artists, who were drawn to everyday subjects, were quite naturally attracted by the railways. French impressionists such as Monet painted railway stations filled with smoke and steam, while Camille Pisarro produced a series of beautiful oils depicting the humdrum trains of London suburbia.

By this time there was also a new way of depicting the railway: the photograph.

Background: Class 87