Iron and Coal
William Bell Scott


1861
Oil on canvas
Wallington Hall, Northumberland


 
Objective Description
     Three capped, standing muscular men, each clad in a blue work shirt, dominate the central portion of this composition. Heavy animal skin aprons are wrapped around their waists, covering their lower torsos. Their arms are raised and each is lifting a black hammer. To their right and partially obscured, a fourth man—also clad in a blue work shirt and cap—bends down and appears to be busy at work as well. The most central of these standing workmen faces the viewer allowing us to see a determined face and large, tense muscles as he swings the hammer.
    The surrounding images crowd the picture plane illustrating various activities. To the right of the working figures, a furnace burns brightly with red and yellow flames. Beneath the furnace, dark heavy objects are silhouetted against a lighter background. A newspaper is draped over a broad sheet of drawings that appear to be illustrating parts of machinery. In the left foreground a young girl sits on a horizontal rounded object holding a wrapped parcel and book. As she faces the viewer directly, we have an opportunity to see her loose fitting clothing and angelic face. Behind her, a young boy stands facing the activity that fills the left-hand portion of the canvas. In his left hand he holds what appears to be a slightly curled rope. A lamp is in his right hand.
      Activities on and around a dock create vertical emphasis to balance the workmen and fiery furnace. The illustrated figures below are in a reduced perspective, and are busy with their activities. Masted, as well as steam vessels appear dockside. On the extreme left, a tall black pipe (with a red band to balance the furnace) spews smoke over the dockside activities. Two arched bridges cross the river. The lower bridge appears heavier and denser, the higher bridge lighter due to the openings in between the vertical bars. A steam engine crosses the taller bridge, partially obscured by the activity in the right hand side of the canvas. A subdued tall chimneystack in the upper left-hand corner spews additional smoke into the cloud filled sky.

Subjective Analysis
This image was one of a series of eight panels commissioned by the Trevelyan family to decorate the enclosed central courtyard of Wallington Hall. Depicting the activities of Tyneside in Northumberland, the activity of this painting is set in an engineering workshop where three muscular 'strikers' are hammering out molten iron. The mechanical drawing in the lower right hand corner illustrates a steam engine built by Robert Stephenson and Co., Engineers, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, an example of which crosses Stephenson's high-level iron bridge in the background. Presumably, the black steam pipe on the left is of the same manufacturer.
      The little girl in the left foreground holds her father's lunch and a schoolbook. The appearance of a workers' child illustrates a workers' virtues: providing work for his family (the child appears to be well fed and looked after) as she too provides for her father. Education for the children of the working class is shown through the child's schoolbook. The young boy is a pit boy and is carrying a whip and a Davy safety lamp. The dock scene that he gazes down at shows activities of fishermen, a milk girl (note the milk pail being carried on her head) and a photographer.
      A coal barge passes on the river (beneath the heavy lower bridge). Coal, a major aspect of Northumberland life, is glorified in this composition. The product (coal on the barge) and the process (hammering molten metals from a furnace powered by coal) yield the glorification of modern life in mid 19th century England. The technical achievements are illustrated as well: the steam engine, the iron bridge, the guns and machinery of war (anchor and marine air pump - lower right). Recognition of the good that the new technology achieved (an upper class perspective) is illustrated by a well-dressed and educated youngster in the foreground of the composition, facing the viewer. All positive aspects are summed up in the caption that is not pictured: "In the Nineteenth Century the Northumbrians show the World what can be done with Iron and Coal."

Q.What is a steam carriage?
A. A carriage provided with a steam engine, which is made to turn the wheels.

Q. What is a steam boat?
A. A ship provided with a steam engine, the force of which turns the wheels that act on the water like the oars of a boat.

Q. What is a McAdamized road?
A. A road formed of small stones of uniform size and weight, so as to bind together in a smooth road.

Q. How fast is the conveyance by each of these means?
A. By a steam vessel, twelve or fifteen miles an hour; by a steam carriage on a rail-road, thirty to sixty miles… and by a stage coach on a McAdamized road, eight or nine miles.

Blair's First or Mother's Catechism, 1856

And there is something else we miss; there is the poetry of the things about us: our railways, factories, mines, roaring cities, steam vessels, and the endless novelties and wonders produced every day; which if they were found only in the thousand and One Nights, or in any poem classical or romantic, would be glorified over without end; for as the majority of us know not a bit more about them, but merely their names, we keep up the same mystery, the main thing required for the surprise of imagination.

Laura Savage (Frederick George Stephens) in The Germ