Picture of the month

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

In this, one of his last great works, Turner ambiguously depicts what was in 1844, a new and exciting form of transport: the railway.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway’, 1844

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

A dark locomotive, with its open-air carriages behind, thunders towards us over a bridge.

The force of the speeding engine, and the diagonal thrust of its iron tracks, is pitted against nature as the engine's smoke and steam merge in a maelstrom of driving rain and cloud, suggested with thickly encrusted paint.

The formidable power of the train threatens not only nature but traditional rural life, including labour and leisure: To the right, down below on the far bank, we see a horse and plough tilling a field; while on the left, two figures fish from a boat.

Two bridges that cross the River Thames at Maidenhead, west of London, are juxtaposed. The smaller bridge, on the left, is older, and built of stone. The bridge on the right is a dominant brick structure, recognisable as Maidenhead Viaduct; designed by the great 19th-century engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Running before the engine's wheels on the new bridge, we can just make out the small, indistinct form of a hare – traditionally one of nature's fastest runners. Will the hare outrun the train, or will it be mown down?

Painting
Joseph Mallord William Turner
1844
Joseph Mallord William Turner: 'Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway'

More paintings from the collection

Joseph Mallord William Turner: 'The Fighting Temeraire'
The Fighting Temeraire
Joseph Mallord William Turner
Joseph Mallord William Turner: 'Margate (?), from the Sea'
Margate (?), from the Sea
Joseph Mallord William Turner