My Favourite Painting: Michael Palin

'It’s a painting of tremendous energy and immediacy'

Rain, Steam, and Speed—the Great Western Railway, 1844, by J. M. W. Turner, National Gallery, London. Bridgeman Images.

Michael Palin says:
‘This is one of the most exciting and significant images of the Industrial Revolution. Above the slow and sylvan world on the banks of the Thames, Change and Progress come thundering along the track towards us. Turner seems to capture not only the sight, but the sound, and even the smell of the Railway Age, after which the British countryside would never be the same again. It’s a painting of tremendous energy and immediacy, which I go back to time and again, always finding something different to admire.’

Michael Palin is an actor, travel writer and television presenter, and a former member of Monty Python. He has recently been elected as president of the Royal Geographical Society.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘Turner painted mythological pictures and also current events, the first benefiting from his gift for observation, the second from his poetic sense—never more so than in Rain, Steam and Speed, art’s first masterpiece of a train. The site is Brunel’s bridge over the Thames at Maidenhead.

The academician George Leslie watched Turner put the finishing touches at the 1844 RA Summer Exhibition, and recalls the importance to the artist of the barely visible hare out-running the engine. ‘This hare, and not the train, I have no doubt he intended to represent the “Speed” of his title; the word must have been in his mind when he was painting the hare, for close to it, on the plain below the viaduct, he introduced the figure of a man ploughing, “Speed the Plough” (the name of an old country dance) possibly passing through his brain.’

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In 1857, six years after Turner’s death, Sir Charles Eastlake, the first keeper of the National Gallery, wrote to a picture cleaner, suggesting that ‘the indication of the speed was marked by three puffs of steam’ and should be ‘assisted a little’ as ‘the traces are still marked by touches of white, but they do not tell’. Some 150 years later, they still do not tell. An etching of the painting by a French artist was hung in tribute at the first exhibition held by the Impressionists in 1874. Monet and Pissarro saw Rain, Steam, and Speed in London, and were inspired to produce their own railway masterpieces.
National Gallery, London, UK?’

This article was first published in Country Life, July 29, 2009