A Printable lecture by Lizzie Darbyshire

Today we’re delighted to bring you a printable lecture by our `area Chairman, Lizzie Darbyshire:





J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844, oil on canvas, 91 x 121.8 cm, National Gallery London


To many, J. M. W. Turner is the greatest landscape painter this country has ever had.  His bequest to the nation on his death in 1851 has left us with a vast body of his works and John Ruskin, a complete devotee of the artist, spent years cataloguing the work and ensuring that it would be properly preserved and conserved for years to come.  Of all the works that are regularly on show in London, however, it is Rain, Steam and Speed that particularly appeals to me.


First exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1844, from the beginning Turner identified the train we see hurtling towards us on the right as travelling the Great Western Railway.  More specifically it is crossing the Thames between Maidenhead and Taplow on the Maidenhead Viaduct, itself a wonder of Victorian engineering created by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and opened for use in July 1839.  By this time ‘railway mania’ was beginning to grip the country, with dizzying speeds of up to 60 mph being achieved on long level stretches of track such as we see here.  Contemporary evidence suggests that Turner may have travelled on this line shortly before executing the painting but even if he didn’t, as Professor of Perspective at the Royal Academy, he knew how to use the diagonal recession of the track to great effect.  Reducing the double rail track across the bridge to a single narrow line and dramatically foreshortening the viaduct adds to the sense of speed with which the train bursts into view through the rain.  In front of the train, running for its life along the track is a hare –a late addition, lightly brushed over existing paint but now barely visible to the naked eye.  To the left of the canvas, the arched road bridge, built in the 1770s, appears through the mists, whilst in the Thames below a boat crosses the river.  To the right of the viaduct (and again now barely visible) a man drives a horse-drawn plough.  Many, though not all, of Turner’s best known works deal with classical scenery but here he is addressing the modern landscape –  man versus  nature, an advance in industrial science that left old ways behind, terrifying some whilst captivating others.

John Mallord William Turner was born in London, probably in Covent Garden, on

23 April 1775, the son of an uneducated barber and wigmaker.  Whilst he showed early talent for drawing, a brief trial with Thomas Malton, a topographical and perspective draughtsman, led some to speculate that he would ‘never be any good’.  How wrong they were!  In 1789, he was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools, exhibiting his first watercolour at the Academy a year later.  In these early years he rivalled, often unsuccessfully, with his exact contemporary Thomas Girtin.  Finally, however, in 1797 that he found success through his journeying in the north of England.  His initial contact with Edward Lascelles at Harewood House served him well and led to many other northern patrons and paintings. His self-portrait (right), painted at about the time of his first northern tour, testifies to his new-found confidence as an artist. Turner was made an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1799 aged 24 and Royal Academician in 1802, becoming Professor of Perspective in 1807.


Rain, Steam and Speed dates from many years later and is the work of a mature artist who no longer needs to seek wealthy patronage and critical approval to sell his canvases.  Indeed, The Times critic, writing on 8 May 1844, strongly disapproved of Turner’s ‘wonted peculiarities’, the railways furnishing him with ‘a new field for the exhibition of his eccentric style’.  Even John Ruskin could not understand why Turner chose to engage with such an unattractive subject as the railways.  The Morning Chronicle critic, on the other hand, praised     ‘… the manner in which the delicate hues of this picture are focussed by the dark monster which is advancing along [the] line’, continuing ‘…Mad it may be, but this is that kind of madness which can only spring out of consummate knowledge.’  To date I have been unable to find a detailed technical analysis of Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed.  From other paintings, however, we learn that he often began to lay in his composition with washes of thinned oil paint applied directly to an offwhite or white priming and evidence shows he was not adverse to using the latest manufactured pigments.  By the 1840s, he was buying ready-stretched, ready-primed canvases from colourmen such as Brown of Holborn or Roberson and Miller of Long Acre.

Turner died at his Chelsea home beside the Thames on 19 December 1851.  He was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral close to other prominent Royal Academicians.  His bequest to the nation comprised nearly 300 oil paintings and around 30,000 sketches and watercolours, including 300 sketchbooks.  A generous gift indeed!

Lizzie Darbyshire – October 2020