Charging Into The Modern Turne Essay

This essay has a total of 3638 words and 15 pages.

Charging Into The Modern Turne


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.

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