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‘Romantic melancholy’ or ‘Romantic Nostalgia’

Railway art featuring some famous artists. . . . . . .

Sitting having a coffee and a biscuit at the catering stop in the Great Hall of the NRM, I find myself musing over how few visitors make it up the stairs towards the Search Engine – or, more particularly, the paintings from the NRM collection on display on that floor. I suppose it might be thought boring to some but I think it an important display of ‘railway art’ in poster and picture form, capturing everything from travel by train over the ages to poster work encouraging the importance of railways in the minds of the public. What about ’Second Class – The Parting’ and ‘First Class – The Meeting’ by Abraham Solomon from 1854/55? This depicts a doubtful looking migrant to Australia and, in the second painting, his successful return. Or perhaps ‘Canon Street Station, 1907’ by Algernon Talmage, an impressionist. It certainly makes an impression on me – dim light, shades of brown and grey, wisps of steam. Borrowing from the language of art critics would you say it’s an example of ‘romantic melancholy’ or ‘romantic nostalgia’, to you?

When I am in London, in non-lockdown times and with an hour or two to spare I like to pop in to the National Gallery to view one of my favourite railway paintings, J M W Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway’.

Exhibited in 1844 but probably painted before that, it features a Gooch ‘Firefly’ crossing the Thames on Brunel’s bridge at Maidenhead. It’s a painting in Turner’s late style, so we view the scene as if through a rain smeared windscreen, quite indistinct and yet clear enough to see a hare running across its path, and a boat on the river. It is, indeed, about rain, steam and speed, capturing in an instant the new age of faster and smoother travel, the end of the era of stage coaches and roads which were little more than cart tracks. Writing in 1899 the critic Thackery noted: ‘Mr Turner …… has out prodigied almost all former prodigies. He has made a picture with real rain, behind which is real sunshine, and you expect a rainbow every minute…… … it is a positive fact that there is a steam coach going fifty miles an hour. The world has never seen anything like this picture’.

But how do you see it? Romantic melancholy or romantic nostalgia? The answer probably depends on you – a scene of melancholy in the rain and steamy clouds, or of nostalgia at the passing of another age?

Go forward to 1875 and we find Monet, no less, painting a train in the snow (‘Le Train dans la Neige’) depicting the arrival of a train at Argenteuil near the artist’s home. It seems to leak steam in splashes of impressionistic brush strokes, its orange lights piercing the frosty gloom. A sense of ‘romantic melancholy’ pervades the scene, thought the writer Jonathan Glancey in 2005. He considered railway scenes difficult to paint, ‘more picture postcard stuff….’ But then try Monet’s ‘Arrival of the Normandy Train’ (1877) where the scene at the Gare Saint Lazare in Paris is more lively, less ‘melancholic’, more ‘nostalgic’.

Paintings of trains can be wistful and contemplative and probably both melancholic and nostalgic. – try Lionel Walden’s ‘The Docks at Cardiff’ (1894), all shining rails in the gloom of early evening, wet streets and locomotives moving in a smear of steam along the quays. (Go to the Louvre at Abu Dhabi, though, if you want to see it!). Tom Lubbock, writing in the Independent of 30th April 2008, reviewed ‘Full Steam Ahead’, an exhibition celebrating Liverpool’s City of Culture. Lubbock decided that the relationship between art and railways didn’t really work since one represented ‘traditional visual technology’, whilst the other was about new angles and trajectories. (Tell that to Shepherd, painting Kings Cross in 1955). ‘Occasionally, startlingly, their tracks crossed. Most of the time they occupied parallel universes.’ Oh yes? Well, try Terence Cuneo’s ‘Storm over Southall’, David Shepherd’s ‘Giants at Rest’.

Your choice, I suppose, a matter of personal taste. I have on my desk 3 postcards depicting paintings by a lesser known Canadian artist, Max Jacquiard. They depict Canadian Pacific and Canadian National trains at Jasper station in the Canadian Rockies, snowy scenes from the 1950’s when ‘Royal Hudson’ locomotives worked the route up from Vancouver through Revelstoke to Jasper. I found them in a bookshop at Jasper station and thought they captured the very essence of steam in the snow. It is winter and so, in addition to the snow, light from firebox doors, from locomotive headlights and station doors, bathes the scene in a cold half light depicted in shades of blue. I find it evocative, ‘romantic melancholy’ if you like, but in the end, it’s an example of how railway art can speak to all of us at any time, even in a pandemic.

Well, coffee finished and time to drift off to lesser known corners of NRM’s Great Hall ……..

Train in the Snow.

Artist: Claude Monet

Read more about this painting here

Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare- Saint Lazare.

Artist: Claude Monet

Read more about this painting here

Cardiff Docks

Artist: Lionel Walden

Read more about this painting here

Storm over Southall Shed, 1978

Artist: Terence Cuneo

Read more about this paining here

Giants at Rest

Artist: David Shepherd

Read more about this painting here

Banff Station

Artist: Max Jacquired

Read more about this painting here


John Swanwick

John Swanwick has a lifetime interest in railways, beginning with trainspotting days in the East Midlands in the early 1960’s. After returning from a management career interspersed with travel around the world, John settled down to develop a more extensive interest in railway history. After completing a Masters degree in Heritage Interpretation/Museum Studies at Leicester University, John began collecting oral histories for the proposed railway museum at Birstall on the former Great Central route through Leicestershire. The oral histories contain the recollections of many who worked on, or used, the Great Central route prior to its closure in the 1960’s. The outcome is a series of recordings held in the archives of the National Railway Museum and the East Midlands Oral History group at Leicester.

The human interest in historical material is a particular interest for John and has led to writing several books and articles drawing on such material. John has also written several books about his travels and is currently researching and writing about trees in the landscape of Yorkshire and Leicestershire.

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