Painting the railway.
If you have visited the NRM you may have strolled along the mezzanine floor which connects the Great Hall to the Search Engine area upstairs. Displayed on the walls there are several artworks which capture different styles and eras of railway history. We all have our favourites there and mine is ‘Service by Night’ by the artist, the late David Shepherd.
Shepherd was commission by BR in 1955 to produce posters depicting the various commercial activities of the railways. The idea was to communicate to everyone what the railways do and why, and to do it in an eye catching way.
David Shepherd for British Railways. A 1955 scene at King’s Cross station; that time when ancient steam and modern electric technologies mixed.
Shepherd’s painting, from which the poster was made, depicts Kings Cross at night with steam locomotives in the station and coming through the station throat before disappearing into the Copenhagen tunnel on the climb heading north. The poster depicts an interesting night sky as a backdrop to the lights of the station and of signal lamps. It’s very evocative and quite inspirational (to me) in showing the railway at night. But take a look at the viewpoint. It’s low down, at track level, giving an unusual perspective. We might imagine the artist at his easel, cowering as enormous locomotives force their way past to enter the tunnel behind. Then there’s the vague thought that something might come up behind. Here is the artist among the signal wires and dummy signals, the heaps of unused track ballast, the litter of the railway.
Except that Shepherd probably did a sketch or took a photograph before retiring to his studio to produce the finished work!
Twenty years after Shepherd’s painting, the late Jay Appleton, an academic working in the Department of Landscape at Hull University, was developing his ‘prospect refuge’ theory. Take a look at landscape paintings, particularly older ones, and you will see that the perspective is often higher up, so looking down on the scene, and set back, perhaps against a hillside, or looking through trees and bushes. Appleton argued that this perspective is that bred in us as hunters from long ago when the best position was high up to see what was coming and what was to be hunted, whilst having your back protected. The theory states that taste in art is "an acquired preference for particular methods of satisfying inborn desires. The two desires are for opportunity (prospect) and safety (refuge).”
Far fetched? Well, maybe, but it’s certainly true about many of those paintings we look at – including views of ‘the train in the landscape’.
But what about ‘Service by Night’? Shepherd could have gone for the prospect refuge theory approach but his choice of track level is evocative and exciting, as he intended. There’s also the vague sense of unease in the viewer, that the artist might be in danger from front or maybe the back. Could an A3 Pacific be sneaking up on him, and us, as we watch Kings Cross at night? What do you think?
Shepherd went on the paint many evocative images of railways including some very sad scenes of locomotives in a dilapidated state at Nine Elms, London, in the last days of steam. He also owned locomotives and contributed hugely to the railway preservation movement,
as well as painting many thoughtful scenes of animals in Africa. I have one hanging on my study wall – of zebra in the dust of the plains in Amboseli Park, in prospect-refuge mode. There are some great images but, in the end, it’s Kings Cross at night that does it for me.
You can find Appleton’s work in his book ‘The Experience of Landscape’ (1975); John Wiley. In 1970, he also wrote a report for the Countryside Commission on "Disused railways in the countryside of England and Wales"
By John Swanwick
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