Rain, Steam and Speed

Swannington Banner #5

JMW Turner’s early 19th century artistic masterpiece “Rain, Steam and Speed” atmospherically depicts the Great Western Railway at the Maidenhead Viaduct which crossed the Thames in England between Taplow and Maidenhead. The painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1844 but is generally agreed to have been produced by Turner a few years previously. Interestingly this makes it contemporary with the subject of the Digital Building Heritage Group’s current AHRC funded Connected Community project with the Swannington Heritage Trust in Leicestershire. This is the visualisation of the Swannington Inclined Plane cable operated rail system of 1833. The Inclined Plane was a magnificent and very early example of innovative English rail engineering and became the model for several others across the world. The Digital Building Heritage Group has been using advanced digital technologies to model and animate a 3D recreation of the Inclined Plane and its engineering structures to show how it worked and what it originally looked like. This includes a recreation of the engine house at the top of the incline and a Stephenson (of “Rocket” fame) single cylinder steam engine which hauled the wagons up the slope. We don’t have many idle moments at the DBHG but in a tea break this week we speculated on a neat circularity that was emerging in the project and its relationship to Turner’s painting. Rain, Steam and Speed from the first half of the 19th century is a painting that directly addresses the introduction of the new technology of steam power into a largely pre-industrial society and the schisms in public perception that accompanied it; on the one hand speed was seen as a sublime experience (in a Burkian sense) offering the power to overcome nature. On the other hand it was seen as emblematic of the danger of man’s technology destroying the inherently sublime elements of nature itself. Our project in the first years of the 21st century to interpret and visualise the steam technology of the early 19th faces related questions. Do digital technologies engage and perhaps thrill us at the price of distancing us (some would say “even further”) from nature or do they bring us closer to it? Walking up and down the mile and half long Inclined Plane at Swannington a couple of months ago with DMU colleagues and Trust members it was clear that the present reality of the Inclined Plane is one of intimate contact with nature. The rails and most of the industrial buildings and structures are gone and all that remains is a ruler straight cutting and embankment (now a cycle and foot path) through the English countryside with beautiful views and lush vegetation where people come to exercise and walk their dogs. There is a stark contrast between the nature of the site as it was then and the nature of the site as it is now, the first an essentially industrial landscape and the second a bucolic country walk. Italian mannerists of the late 16th century would have described this as opera di mano and opera di natura, and would have recognised the dualism and inherent contradictions in the relationship between man and nature that it embodies. There is the danger that searching only for clarity in interpretation of the industrial site that once existed could exclude the relationship to nature which is important to the site as it is now. This requires careful consideration because of two related issues; firstly it is a widespread problem common to today’s curation of industrial heritage sites in the UK; secondly our modern relationship with nature is still a very complex and often conflicted one, just as it was for Turner and indeed for 16th century mannerists. For today’s society deeply divided as it is about the impact our technological world has both on us, our natural environment and our relationship to it, using advanced digital technologies to shape understandings of the past also brings with it obligations about shaping appreciations of the present. Research groups like ours have a responsibility to recognize these deeper philosophical questions, understand them and develop carefully reasoned and balanced responses in the work that we produce. For us Swannington is one of the focii for exercising the arguments which surround these questions and most importantly for developing practical implementations which attempt to address them. Interestingly it is perhaps to Turner that we might turn for guidance in doing so. In Rain, Steam and Speed he elegantly demonstrates through the swirling atmosphere of steam, rain and light that the world of man and the word of nature are not divided, they are in fact the same. Technology is not distinct and separate from the natural world, it is part of it, no matter how distant it may sometimes seem in the rarified environments we create or the careless actions we take. In Turner’s art there is a profound commentary upon technology and nature, one that is as relevant today as it was one hundred and sixty eight years ago. Likewise, if there is an art in the use of modern digital technologies to explain and understand the past and the relationship of our present to it then it lies in using the very same dexterity of thought and connectivity of ideas that Turner presents to us to recognise this truth and act upon it. This does not mean superficially trying to recreate Turner-like images, rather it means finding new ways to achieve the same insightful commentary, making best use of modern digital technology itself to bring us closer to an appreciation of nature through history rather than distance us from it. We may not all be JMW Turners but through careful and reflective thought with our Connected Community partners in projects like the Swannington Incline we may begin to approach meaningful ways of doing so.

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About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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