'The Railway. Art in the Age of Steam': The Walker Art Gallery, National Museums, Liverpool

By Hopkinson, Martin | British Art Journal, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview
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'The Railway. Art in the Age of Steam': The Walker Art Gallery, National Museums, Liverpool


Hopkinson, Martin, British Art Journal


Given the fascination of transport enthusiasts in both Britain and America with steam locomotives, it is surprising that the exhibition organised jointly by the Walker Art Gallery and the Nelson--Atkins Museum of Art is the first large show devoted to the Age of Steam as seen by visual artists. The Liverpool showing was the Walker's major event in its celebrations of the city's year as European Capital of Culture. The Merseyside city, of course, had been the starting point for the world's first commercial passenger and freight line, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, opened in 1830, while Kansas City in the heart of the United States was a key railway town from which the Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division (later renamed the Kansas Pacific) reached west to Denver, Colorado in 1870. This joint exhibition proved a great success with the British public, packing the galleries with all ages of visitors. The interest was so great that within a month the paperback version of the impressive scholarly catalogue had totally sold out.

The exhibition spanned the period 1830 to 1975, closing with a splendid selection of the Winston Link's evocative photographs of engines at work in Virginia in the late 1950s. The lion's share of exhibits were devoted to the railways of Britain and America, but the show also included many major examples of French representation of the impact of steam, as well as key images of German, Austrian, Danish, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Indian, Kenyan, Russian and Japanese railways. Unexpectedly greeting the visitor opposite the entrance to the first room was a fine small atmospheric very tonal painting by Adolph von Menzel of a train speeding away from the distant suburbs of Berlin, an image that contrasted strongly with the almost contemporaneous highly romantic oil The Night Train by David Cox, in which wild skies vied with the terrified horses below. Most of this room was filled with the representation of the very first railways in England, many of which were far from artless, including Thomas Talbot Bury's Koninck-like panorama of an early train travelling across the wilderness of the recently drained Chat Moss, an engineering triumph that inspired Derek Hampson's recent ceiling paintings published within these pages. The hive of activity that was necessary to engineer the London to Birmingham railway was well represented in the drawings and watercolours of John Cooke Bourne, whose style combined neoclassical composition with the romantic colours of Thomas Shotter Boys. Not present in Liverpool, but viewable by visitors to Kansas City, will be drawings from a little-known sketchbook by Daubigny of the lines from Paris to Le Havre and from Paris to Lille. The beauty and calm of early French railway architecture in the photographs of Edouard Baldus and Auguste-Hippolyte Collard contrasted with the muscularity of James Mudd's presentation of a recently completed locomotive in Manchester.

Beyond the screen on which the Menzel hung, one found the passengers gathered at the railway stations or enjoying the opportunities for flirtation in the carriages. By no means all the paintings were familiar. Frederic Barwell's undeciphered stow of a parting inside Fenchurch Street station, and representations of the contrasting stations of Vienna and Sacramento, accompanied the Lloyd-Webber version of Frith's famous picture of Paddington. The opportunities for masters of genre painting of the mid-19th century were much enhanced by the new method of transport.

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