Wednesday, October 12, 2016
London Review of Books
October 20, 2016
J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway hangs in a corner of Room 34 at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. The painting remains close to where it was first exhibited in 1844 when the Royal Academy occupied the gallery’s east wing. ‘There comes a train down upon you,’ Thackeray wrote after seeing the painting. ‘The viewer had best make haste … lest it dash out of the picture and be away to Charing Cross through the wall opposite.’ The National Gallery has been refashioned, the RA has moved to Piccadilly, but the train in Rain, Steam and Speed is forever hurtling towards Charing Cross.
The only other painting at the National Gallery that comes close to its depiction of speed is Titian’s Death of Actaeon, which shows Diana, the goddess of hunting, running through woods to witness Actaeon’s death: she has already transformed him into a stag as punishment for coming across her and her nymphs bathing. His own hounds have caught up with him, they don’t recognise their master and they’re about to tear him apart – just as certainly as the train will destroy a hare in Rain, Steam and Speed.
‘Always take advantage of an accident,’ Turner once said. ‘A painter can only represent the instant of an action, and what is seen at first sight’ was another of his aphorisms, one that he borrowed from Gotthold Lessing or John Opie, magpie that he was. ‘Every glance is a glance for study,’ he also said. The scene in Rain, Steam and Speed is of an imminent death, the instant of an action caught by a glance. A train rushes across a bridge and is bearing down on a hare that’s running over the washed-brown bed of a railway track. The hare isn’t immediately obvious because it is partially obscured by the driving rain. The train will catch up with the hare and kill it: there’s no escape, the track is encased by walls. The hare’s typical act of self-defence, to turn back on itself so dramatically that it throws off its pursuers, marvelled at by hunters for centuries, isn’t available: the locomotive blocks its path. ‘Each outcry of the hunted hare/A fibre from the brain does tear,’ Blake said, but this hare’s death looks as if it will be instantaneous.