J M W Turner - 'Rain Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway'

by KathleenDuffy

Despite gloomy predictions about the railways, Turner's 'Rain Steam and Speed' used an optimistic, painterly language to depict the new mode of travel.

J M W Turner's painting 'Rain, Steam and Speed' is a positive interpretation of Victorian railways in an era when Britain's new mode of transport was often seen as a threat to the Romantic notion of the countryside.

In 1844 'Railway Mania' reached its peak with the opening of the Bristol and Exeter extension of the Great Western Railway. Two hundred miles of West of England line was completed and that same year Turner displayed his 'Rain Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway' at the Royal Academy.

It was a small, unpretentious picture which attracted little attention despite its original subject matter.

Rain, Steam, Speed - JMW Turner
Rain, Steam, Speed - JMW Turner

Most artists were indifferent to the new railways. Only architectural drawings and engravings in a few railway guide books were the exception.  Trains were not seen as appropriate subjects for art.

In fact, Romantic artists of all genres saw the dark side of the Railway Revolution.

The poet, William Wordsworth, was against the railways once he realised  that the peace of his beloved Lake District would be  threatened by the Kendal and Windermere  Railway. He became the equivalent of our modern day Nimby (not in my back yard!) and published his outrage in various tracts and articles.

John Ruskin, art critic, painter and Turner’s champion, completely ignored Rain, Steam and Speed and stated that travelling by railway was not real  travel but was like being sent to a destination, a bit like a parcel.

William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth
John Ruskin
John Ruskin

Charles Dickens

In Dombey & Son Dickens sees trains as an  image of Death itself and during his own lifetime he experienced a horrific train crash. (Apparently his wife was in one of the carriages with him, whilst his mistress was in another - unknown to the wife!)


Turner’s friend, the painter, John Martin, despite being an engineer and reformer, depicted the sublime, terrifying side of the Industrial Revolution in his huge canvases.

Turner’s Optimistic View of the Railway Age

Many critics saw Turner's painting, Rain, Steam and Speed as another gloomy interpretation of the age of steam. 

But author,  John Gage (1) can see no evidence to suggest that Turner was as pessimistic as his peers. He argues that Turner, always interested in scientific developments,  was really excited about the new technology.

Rain Steam Speed, Turner


In his picture, the hare which can be seen running in front of the engine, is in no real danger from the speed of the train at this point.  The hare was a well used artistic symbol of speed for Turner. It isn't very visible in a print, but if you get to the National Gallery in London you can study the original painting and see the little hare quite clearly, along with it's opposite symbol - a man ploughing a field.

In the picture, crowds wave from the river bank, showing the public enthusiasm for passing trains.



And in reality, when the Bristol and Exeter line opened, business in Exeter was suspended as thousands of people flocked into the streets whilst bands played. 

 This hardly suggests that Turner was a miserable anti-train, Luddite grump! 

But naturally, there are many ways of interpreting a painting and some critics saw the hare, a force of nature,  escaping from the onslaught of the fiery locomotive.  Likewise, the man ploughing the field carries on with his work, like a symbol of steadfast labour, unaware that industrialisation will affect his seemingly timeless tasks.

Turner may have incorporated these allegories into his painting because the fears and doubts expressed by his contemporaries were in many ways justified - yet Turner's outlook was, according to John Gage, on the whole a cause for celebration.

In addition, the railway excursion was a joyful occasion for ordinary working people, opening up areas of the countryside hitherto unreachable and allowing them to visit such exciting events as The Great Exhibition of 1851.

Other reasons for Turner choosing to paint the Great Western were :

  • With his interest in all things scientific, Turner would have seen The Great Western, with its massive seven-foot guage,  as a huge achievement. 
  • The setting is Brunel’s Maidenhead Railway Bridge, a triumph of engineering, but in addition it is set amongst the Thames scenery that Turner loved.
Maidenhead Railway Bridge with old Maidenhead Bridge in background
Maidenhead Railway Bridge with old Maidenhead Bridge in background
  • There were Royal connections. In 1843 Prince Albert travelled to Bristol by train to launch Brunel’s steamship, Great Britain;
  • The train is travelling towards Devon, opening up the picturesque county to travellers and it is also the scene of other Turner works.
  • Speed was one of the train’s most attractive claims as a service,  and a year after the picture was completed the train would reach speeds of 43 mph, the fastest service.

Turner's 'Rain Steam and Speed' Influenced by Rembrandt


Rain, Steam and Speed is arguably not only a document, but primarily an allegory on the forces of nature and modernity.

In much of his work, Turner  drew on the Baroque style which he knew so well.  Very simply, the Baroque in painting  is an artistic style that expresses emotion through flamboyant, loose  brushwork.  Dramatic swirls of paint and vibrant colours helped the viewer to relate to the painting emotionally and not just intellectually. It was the result of the Catholic Reformation.  After the onslaught of the Protestant Reformation the Catholic Church tried to reassert its power and prestige by emphasising the deeply emotional impact of the Catholic faith through art.  Architecture, painting and music became vehicles for grand gestures and unrestrained exuberance.

In Northern Europe, Rembrandt had adopted the Baroque style to great effect.  Turner admired Rembrandt deeply, and looking at Rain, Steam and Speed we can see how Turner's expressive, loose brushwork owes such a lot to Rembrandt.

The Mill by Rembrandt
The Mill by Rembrandt

The French Appreciated Turner

He influenced Impressionism!


Pissarro and Monet, whilst in London, had seen Turner’s work.  They were impressed by his subject matter and his  depiction of weather, light, in fact  all the immediacy of changing nature.

Their own works did little to replicate the emotional impact of Turner’s experience.   They were more interested in his choice of subject matter.    But, despite this, Rain Steam and Speed was recognised by some French critics as a worthy experiment in abstract ideas in painting. Pissarro would later encourage his son, Lucien, to study this painting.

Lordship Lane Station by Camille Pissarro
Lordship Lane Station by Camille Piss...

Both Monet and Pissarro would choose the steam train as subject matter - but neither would replicate Turner's sublime emotional imagery.

In Rain, Steam and Speed Turner unites the forces of nature with the optimistic dynamism of the new modern age to stunning effect.   

It's in the National Gallery, London - well worth a look!



Turner: Rain, Steam and Speed by John Gage (Allen Lane, 1972)

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Updated: 07/26/2013, KathleenDuffy
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