Full Steam Ahead: 1 Paintings of the steam revolution

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Snow Storm, Steam Boat off a Harbour's Mouth (1842), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 121.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2016, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-snow-storm-steam-boat-off-a-harbours-mouth-n00530

If there’s one thing that characterises the nineteenth century around the world, it’s steam power. Unlike many other technological advances, its impact on life was so pervasive that the revolution which steam engines brought about during that century is well-recorded in paintings. It’s salutary to think that the first experimental steam engines were being developed at the close of the seventeenth century, not long after the death of Rembrandt.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), The Mill (1645-48), oil on canvas, 87.6 x 105.6 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Prior to the coming of steam, the main industrial sources of power were wind, through the windmill seen in Rembrandt’s The Mill (1645-48) above, and water, which was entrained to drive watermills, as seen in Jacob van Ruisdael’s Two Watermills and an Open Sluice (1653), below.

Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/1629–1682), Two Watermills and an Open Sluice (1653), oil on canvas, 66.4 x 84.1 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Both had their limitations. Even in the most exposed places, wind comes and goes, and can’t be relied upon. Given the right supply, water is less capricious, but relies on terrain and location. Both blend in well with the natural environment, and are now enjoying a revival because of their low footprint on our precious planet.

Even before the Industrial Revolution, people needed to move goods and supplies. As people concentrated in cities, they needed grain to be transported in bulk to be ground into flour by those mills, and baked into bread to feed the workers and their masters alike. Bulk cargoes came to be moved by barge, travelling on rivers and canals.

Canals were first dug for irrigation of crops in the Fertile Crescent, but soon came to be used for transporting produce, goods, and anything which was too heavy or bulky to draw by cart. Chinese, Egyptian and Greek engineers put huge teams of labourers to work digging canals large enough to support trade, including the Ancient Suez Canal which linked the Nile (hence the Mediterranean) with the Red Sea.

The first modern canals were dug in Bavaria, the ‘Low Countries’ around Belgium and the Netherlands, and in England during the Middle Ages. The building of canals became common major civil engineering projects as the Industrial Revolution swept across much of Europe during the latter half of the eighteenth century.

Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch (1824–1903), View near the Geest Bridge, The Trekvliet Shipping Canal near Rijswijk (1868), oil on panel, 31 x 50 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Unlike railways, many canals passed through tranquil countryside without disrupting their calm. Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch painted this View near the Geest Bridge in 1868, when this canal was still in active use. The Trekvliet Shipping Canal shown here links The Hague with neighbouring villages of Rijswijk and Voorburg; both have since been swallowed up into The Hague conurbation.

Whenever possible, cargoes were moved around the coast by sailing ship – another service provided by the wind. In fair conditions, this worked well, but once vessels lost sight of land, the hazards multiplied, and shipping losses were heavy.

Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682), The Embarkation of Ulysses (1646), oil, dimensions not known, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Claude Lorrain’s anachronistic ships in The Embarkation of Ulysses are more typical of those in use when he painted this in 1646. Like so many mariners, Ulysses was shipwrecked and his journey by sea from the Trojan War became one of the first great epics of Europe.

Travel overland wasn’t necessarily slow: when the going was good, professional messengers could cover 50-100 miles a day on horseback, provided that they had regular and frequent change of horses. But for passengers in carriages, moving any distance overland was painfully slow, filthy and dangerous.

Adolph von Menzel (1815–1905), Hussars Rescue a Polish Family (1850), paper, 34.5 x 47 cm, Museum Georg Schäfer, Schweinfurt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Adolph von Menzel captures this well in his Hussars Rescue a Polish Family from 1850. It was clearly a wet autumn, with the leaves still burning red and gold on the trees in the background. These mounted soldiers are helping the elderly women from a carriage across the muddy ruts of the road. The hussar in the foreground, with his back to the viewer, even has mud on his riding boots.

Steam didn’t really arrive until the early nineteenth century, after over a hundred years of experiments and gestation. Static steam engines designed to work for the tin mines in Cornwall were among the first, during the 1810s. The first steamship crossed the English Channel in 1822, and in 1839 the first steamship driven by a screw propellor was commissioned. The first public steam railway, running from Stockton to Darlington in England, opened in 1825, although it moved only coal until it opened to passengers in 1833. In those few years, the world changed irrevocably.

One of the first artists to recognise the potential in these new smoke-belching machines was JMW Turner, then at the height of his career.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Wreckers – Coast of Northumberland, with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore (1833-4), oil on canvas, 122.6 x 153 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

The steamship in Turner’s Wreckers – Coast of Northumberland, with a Steam-Boat Assisting a Ship off Shore from 1833-34 is quite hard to see, as if it’s only a tentative addition.

Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Snow Storm, Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), oil on canvas, 91.4 x 121.9 cm, The Tate Gallery (Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2016, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-snow-storm-steam-boat-off-a-harbours-mouth-n00530

By 1842, though, he put a steamship at the centre of the vortex in his Snow Storm, Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth. Its drama was heightened by the story that Turner had himself lashed to the mast so that he could observe this storm properly – almost certainly false and quite unnecessary anyway. As a seasoned Channel traveller, Turner would have had ample previous experience.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), oil on canvas, 91 x 121.8 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

He wasted no time in depicting the rapid spread of the steam train, in his remarkably early Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway from 1844. Showing one of the very early steam locomotives built for Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s huge and innovative Great Western Railway, this express is crossing the River Thames at Maidenhead. Until then, that had been a sleepy country town; now it was within commuting distance of the centre of London. This section of its line from London to Bristol was only opened in the summer of 1839, and reached Bristol two years later.

Steam power spread rapidly throughout Europe and beyond, even up to the wild coasts of the Nordic countries.

Peder Balke (1804–1887), Rough Sea with a Steamship Near the Norwegian Coast (c 1847-50), oil on paper, 33.5 × 42.5 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst (Den Kongelige Malerisamling), Copenhagen, Denmark. Wikimedia Commons.

Peder Balke shows an early steamship battling with extreme conditions in his Rough Sea with a Steamship Near the Norwegian Coast from about 1847-50. This painting must have been among the first to show such a ship under way in those remote parts.

By the end of the nineteenth century, express steam trains were whistling people from London to the Highlands of Scotland, and from Paris to the Mediterranean coast, in a matter of a few hours: journeys which previously would have taken days or even weeks. Steamships operated scheduled freight and passenger services which enabled artists to accompany their paintings on exhibition in North America.

Over the rest of this weekend, I look at how painters, from William Frith to Vincent van Gogh, captured the steam revolution on canvas.