Art in the Age of Steam at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool 18 April 2008 – 10 August 2008
Review by Stuart Ian Burns
Art In The Age of Steam is one of the Walker Art Gallery Liverpool’s tentpole major exhibitions as part of the Capital of Culture celebrations. As such then it should be rather special and you know what – it really is – one of the best exhibitions the galleries has staged this decade. It’s an interesting and relevant topic and the exhibition takes time to look at the very specific era between 1830 and the early half of the 1900s in great detail, showing how different artists working various genres and media reacted to it.
As the opening explanation in the wall notes, “Ideas of time and space were changed forever.” Stream engines meant that people could travel faster than ever before between destinations which utterly changed perceptions of the local world. It’s difficult for us now to imagine a world in which it would take days or weeks to travel throughout even our small island, London seeming a very long way away rather than two and half hours (give or take delays). Also, it’s not emphasised enough in the show but the Liverpool to Manchester steam railway was one of the technical marvels of its age with Stevenson’s Rocket the famous vehicle that ran first on the tracks.
Fittingly, it’s the flexibility of travel in the times we live that allow this exhibition to be quite as comprehensive and surprising. There’s no denying that it’s quite thrilling to enter a section, for example ‘Impressionism and Post-Impressionism’ and find five Monet and a Manet lined up on a wall opposite some Pisarros and a Van Gogh in a space, a ten minute bus ride away from. That might be commonplace in London and Paris obviously, but certainly not in Liverpool and many of these are from private collections and this will be the only time they can be seen for many a year. It might sound trite to talk about names over the quality of the work on display, but this is the first time I’ve actually stood close enough to an Edward Hopper to see the brush strokes and that’s not something you’d really want to forget.
As a side note, having worked for the registrars of a gallery I can understand the undertaking this exhibition will have represented, especially considering the number of institutions which are listed as sources, many of them in the US. Plus there’s the funding. Monet’s Railway Bridge, Argenteuil actually has an addition to its label that the ‘transportation was supported by Merseytravel’ which means that the cost of moving that one painting was so expensive an outside organisation had to step in!
Some of these provenance labels are interesting in and of themselves. Norbet Guenuette’s View of Saint-Lazare Railway, Paris is owned by The Baltimore Museum of Art but many hands chipped in to buy it for their collection; ‘The George A Lucas Collection purchased with funds from the State of Maryland, Laurence and Stella Bendann Fund, and contributions from individuals, foundations and corporations throughout the Baltimore community.’ That’s what I call civic pride.
If the Impressionists stands out for its A-List power, the emotional backbone is the section about ‘the human drama of the railway’. Spend enough time between trains, idly waiting for the next train and you’ll find yourself people watching, speculating on who your fellow passengers are and how they spend the rest of their lives. Sometimes, if you’ve been commuting together you might ask and sometimes their story might even be more fantastic than you first thought. But often you’re happy with the fantasy, and these pictures of travellers on station platforms and in train carriages capture that impulse perfectly, period scenes teaming with life, small groups of people demanding us to imagine their story.
The area is dominated by WP Frith’s The Railway Station which like all of them contrasts the different classes of passenger showing how segregation was still in effect even as they joined the train. It’s Parting Words, Fenchurch Street Station by Frederick Brown Barwell that creates the biggest mystery because it seems to be based on some lost novel. As the label asks, just “Why is the man on the left standing in amazement at one of the two identically dressed ladies?” That seems to be a theme, since across the room Augustus Egg’s The Travelling Companions also features two similarly costumed girls, twins in fact, sitting opposite one another in a carriage producing a near symmetrical image but for the scenery.
The American vistas in ‘Crossing continents – America and beyond’ are of the order which must have influenced John Ford and his cinematographers as they attempted to capture the old west on film. Often, as in George Inness’s The Lackawanna Valley there’s a stark contrast between the idyllic countryside and this symbol of industrialisation rolling through. But its difficult not be moved by the massive canvas of Donner Lake from the Summit by Albert Biersladt in which the train is dwarfed by the landscape, suggesting that no matter what happens, nature will out.
The final two areas ‘States of Mind’ and ‘The Machine Age’ bespeak of the transitional period when Steam was inevitably superseded by even more impressive, but perhaps more damaging technology. Whilst its interesting to watch the avant-guard attempt to deal with old technology in a new era, the most effective image here are the still green and red hues of Hopper’s Railroad Sunset which shows a solitary signaling box and now trains, perhaps underscoring what’s been lost. A plasma screen in the gallery has footage from a range of films showing these beasts in action and it’s certainly a more thrilling experience than watching an anonymous two carriage electric box trundle out of Lime Street.