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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Art: Progress, technology and modernity


Stanley Spencer, Shipbuilding on the Clyde: Burners (centre), 1940-41, Imperial War Museums, London

The Industrial Revolution marks a major turning point in human history, influencing almost every aspect of daily life.

The Victorians were impressed by science and progress, and felt that they could improve society in the same way as they were improving technology.

The most striking developments of the nineteenth century was the rapid advances in science and technology, in particular the use of machines to perform work that had previously been done by hand.

Steam replaced sail, machine-power replaced manpower and political and social reforms transformed society.

These technological changes made possible a tremendously increased use of natural resources and the mass production of manufactured goods.

People begin to think and speak of modernity as radically distinct from the past and understand temporality in new ways, the sense of time grounded in nature was gradually replaced by one measured by the clock.

A temporality that was natural, cyclical, locally variable, and imprecise gave way to one that was mechanical, linear, uniform, and measurable.

A lot of artists ignored these economic and social changes but one who understood the modernity of the Industrial Revolution was Turner who caught this new world in his works of the 1830’s and 1840’s.

No imagine better evokes the mania for speed and trains typical of the Victorian period as the work Rain, Steam, and Speed painted by JMW Turner in 1844 and displayed in the National Gallery of London.

JMW Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway, 1844, National Gallery London

Turner, ahead of the Lumière brothers, launched a train against the visitors with a speed that seems to come out of the canvas: to create this sensation of dynamism he used the oblique cut of the bridge and the perspective and the angle no frontal of the viewing.

The Maidenhead Railway Bridge, also known as Maidenhead Viaduct, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel for the Great Western Railway, connects London to Bristol and the area of Exeter.

The only element on focus in the painting is the engine of the train with its chimney symbol of the steam and speed’s era.

Turner further emphasises the theme of speed by including two small details: on the river on the left, you can see a small boat and, barely visible near the right edge of the picture, a man drives a horse-drawn plough.

JMW Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed, detail boat, National Gallery, London
JMW Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed, detail plough, National Gallery, London

Both the boat and the plough are examples of relatively slow, non-mechanised activity.

The first part of the title of the painting “Rain” is the element that was mixed with the water of the river and the sky in an abstract whirlwind.

Turner a romantic painter expressed in this work the aesthetic of the sublime as J. Clay said that he achieved: “to transfer the themes of the sublime in the field of the technique, painting the fusion of the industrial value with the atmospheric condition of the rain and fog and connecting them with a new parameter: the speed”.

The railway transformed the English landscape capturing the imagination of artists and writers.

From the Romantic landscape with ruins symbol of the majestic nature and the sublime to the industrial landscape.

This phaenomenon happened really fast in Wales and cities as Merthyr Tydfil, the iron capital of Wales, were larger and more important than either Cardiff or Swansea.

It was also the birthplace of one of the best-known artists of the nineteenth century, Penry Williams.

He was the son of a stone mason and house painter and from an early age showed remarkable skill as an artist and he came to the notice of iron masters and patrons of the arts like William Crawshay and John Guest, who paid for Williams to travel to London where he lived and studied at the Royal Academy.

His industrial landscapes, the most realised for his patron Crawshay. were atmospheric and realistic but, at the same time, they were imbued with an artistic excellence that showed his innate ability and the quality of the art education he had received.

His most beautiful industrial landscape is the Cyfarthfa Ironworks Interior at Night, 1825. Williams in this exquisite watercolour depicted the Cyfarthfa Ironworks Interior with the ceiling that remind a Cathedral with its metal ring and the workers dramatically lighted by the lights of the furnaces.

Penry Williams, Cyfarthfa Ironworks Interior at Night, 1825, Cyfarthfa Castle Museum

His patron William Crawshay is recognisable by his castle Cyfarthfa Castle in the darkness in the right side of the watercolour.

In another work, South Wales Industrial Landscape c.1825, Williams painted these giant structures that dominated the landscape with tall and smoky chimneys but always with an elegance and a perfect integration with the landscape. These works are not to mean the richness of the owner but to show his pride.

Penry Williams, South Wales Industrial Landscape, ca. 1825 , National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth

Williams’ works are not just important for the majestic industrial structure that made proud its owner but for the presence in them of the workers.

Williams, growing up in the iron capital, depicted people who he knew personally, painting accurate scenes that he saw in live and recording the hard industrial works.

Industrial workers started to be painted in the art works.

Henry Hawkins painted in 1832 The Penrhyn Slate Quarry, one of the biggest in the world that in the Victorian period became a popular tourist attraction visited by a thirteen-year-old Queen Victoria.


Henry Hawkins The Penrhyn Slate Quarry, 1832, Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd

This was considered one of the human marvels for the immense scale of the excavation and the huge manpower symbolised by the numbers of the workers present in the painting.

Some believe the painting symbolises the rise of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution; although one should refute the latter and regard quarrying and the Industrial Revolution to co-exist. The timing may be right but there is no mechanization; what we witness, admittedly on an industrial scale, is the continuation of heavy manual labour.

This topic is used again by the artists of the new generation as the Polish painter Joseph Herman or the English painter Stanley Spencer.

Joseph Herman moved to Wales in 1944 in the mining village of Ystradgynlais where he painted and recorded the hard life of the miners and the village community as in the work Miners singing (1950-51 in the National Museum of Wales/National Museum Cardiff).

Joseph Herman, Miners singing, 1951, National Museum Wales, National Museum Cardiff

Stanley Spencer in his series Shipbuilding on the Clyde (1940-41) depicted the hard work of the Burners and Welders in the two series Burners and Welders.

Stanley Spencer, Shipbuilding on the Clyde: Burners (centre), 1940-41, Imperial War Museums, London
Stanley Spencer, Shipbuilding on the Clyde: Welders (centre), 1940-41, Imperial War Museums, London

In his works Spencer showed his fascination for the Shipyard Machinery and the workers’ skill to used it.

The industrial landscape is becoming the characteristic of the city landscape and one of the most famous painters in this subject is Laurence Stephen Lowry. He developed a distinctive style of painting and is best known for his urban landscapes peopled with human figures, often referred to as "matchstick men".

His industrial interest started in 1909 when he moved with his family to Pendlebury as he described: “and at first I disliked it, and then after about a year or so I got used to it, and then I got absorbed in it, then I got infatuated with it. Then I began to wonder if anyone had ever done it. Seriously, not one or two, but seriously; and it seemed to me by that time that it was a very fine industrial subject matter. And I couldn't see anybody at that time who had done it”.

L.S. Lowry, The Mill Gates, 1928, Keele University Art Collection.
L.S. Lowry, Industrial Panorama,1953


Works as The Mill Gates (1928) and Industrial Panorama (1953) show some of his distinctive technique as the neutral grey background or pastel colours for painting people or the smoke of the chimneys.

Lowry as a contemporary artist he wanted to show the result of the Industrial revolution in his works: “I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I tried to paint it all the time. I tried to paint the industrial scene as best I could. It wasn't easy”.

His use of stylised figures, which cast no shadows, and lack of weather effects in many of his landscapes led critics to label him a naïve "Sunday painter".

Without his pictures, Britain would arguably lack an account in paint of the experiences of the 20th-century working class.

Another English contemporary artist Roger Wagner took the industrial revolution on another level with metaphysical and religious meanings.

In his regular train journeys as a commuter between Oxford to London he was fascinated by the looming presence of the Didcot power station.

One day he saw a huge umbrella-shaped cloud condensing and tumbling over the six cooling towers and one tall chimney, and an idea began to form.

He connected it with the Menorah, the Didcot plant interpreted as the seven-branched candlestick which burned eternally in the Jerusalem temple and a symbol of the presence of God.

In 1989 came Surely He Has Born Our Griefs, a deposition scene, with the mourners round Christ’s body wearing concentration camp stripes and the star of David.


Roger Wagner, Surely he has borne our griefs ,1989, private collection

Behind them there are the three Crosses and the smoking towers that recalled Auschwitz. In this apocalyptic scene two people found comfort hanging each other.

The desolation scene of Wagner inserts in a contemporary landscape, the power station, a unforgettable grief of two religions trying to create a symbolic unification between the Holocaust and the Crucifixion joint in the human grief.

His works are painted with an extreme care of the details and a high-quality technique that reminded the Renaissance and metaphysical art. In XXI century, his works spoke directly with us about subjects that contemporary art usually ignores as: Beauty, the relationship with God and the humankind.




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