Rain, Steam and Speed—The Great Western Railway
J M W Turner

Oil on canvas
National Gallery, London



Objective Description
Soft warm and cool colors, as well as loose, rapid brushstrokes cover the entire rectangular canvas surface, enveloping the objects in the appearance of a misty haze. Two diagonal forms predominate, both receding within the canvas space. On the left, an arched bridge moves diagonally into a misted central area of the same color variants. A larger and darker diagonal movement on the right draws our eye into the center of the composition as well. This shape, however, contains a smaller, darker form on top of it, semi-circular in shape with a vertical rectilinear object protruding. This dark rectilinear shape is the darkest and tallest of all the shapes, thus attracting our eye to it as a central focus.

Subjective Analysis
Rain, Steam and Speed is a painting that addresses the new technology of the railways in Britain. This image, painted to illustrate the new rail bridges crossing the Thames, illustrates the effect of speed (through diagonal movement) and steam (misty, loose brushwork) all working within the natural environment of a rainy England.
      As a sublime experience, speed, a novel factor of the 'new' 19th century life, offered its power to overcome nature (water and sky). The locomotive (complete with steam powered engine) is a representative of the 'new' technology and creates a 'new' ingredient to the atmospheric effects that were representative to Turner's paintings at this time.

Railway Bills were granted in great heaps. Two hundred and seventy-two additional Acts were passed in 1846. Some authorized the construction of lines running almost parallel to existing railways, in order to afford the public 'the benefits of unrestricted competition.' Locomotive and atmospheric lines, broad gauges and narrow gauge lines, were granted without hesitation. Committees decided without judgment and without discrimination; it was a scramble for Bills, in which the most unscrupulous were the most successful.

Samuel Smiles; Lives of the Engineers, 1862