Response to Rain, Steam and Speed by Joseph Mallord William Turner
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...