My Favourite Painting: Jeremy Clarkson

'That's why this is my favourite painting. Because it invites you to imagine'

Jeremy Clarkson on Rain, Steam and Speed — The Great Western Railway by J. M. W. Turner

I once championed Isambard Kingdom Brunel as the greatest Briton ever to have lived and I still believe he was. No man contributed more, from the invention of artery forceps to great ocean liners, such as the SS Great Britain. He was also responsible for the roof of Paddington Station. Actually, he was responsible for all of Paddington Station and the line that linked it to Bristol – and the trains that ran between the two places.

But it’s the roof that fascinates me most of all, because I believe it to be the most beautiful thing in all of London. It’s not the most beautiful thing he ever made, however. That’s Maidenhead Bridge, which even today has the flattest arches ever created. This is the bridge you can’t really see here. And it’s one of Brunel’s trains that’s making the steam that means you can’t really see that either. But that’s why this is my favourite painting. Because it invites you to imagine’

Jeremy Clarkson is a television presenter, journalist, writer and farmer

Charlotte Mullins comments on Rain, Steam, and Speed

This painting is the epitome of Turner’s late work and offers a visual foil to The Fighting Temeraire, painted five years earlier. If the latter suggested a nostalgia for the age of sail, as the ghostly three-master is towed towards the breaker’s yard by a blackened tug boat, then Rain, Steam, and Speed fully embraces modernity and the steam age.

Turner painted two bridges spanning the River Thames at Maidenhead. One is pale and insubstantial, its arches barely visible through the mist. A small rowing boat floats nearby, a leisurely couple on board (one holds a parasol). The other bridge is a buttressed reimagining of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpiece, completed in 1839 and sporting the widest, shallowest brick arches in the world.

It was a feat of engineering that facilitated the transportation of people and produce from one side of the country to the other at unprecedented speed. Nature’s own speed demon, the hare, races along the railway tracks, but it is dwarfed by the engine. It will not survive, Turner suggests — nothing can outrun industrialism.

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One Lady Simon recounted how Turner had stuck his head out of the window of his carriage on the Great Western Railway as it sped from London to Bristol after the line opened in 1841. He experienced the elements as sensations — the tug of wind in his hair, rain plastering his skin. He translated these sensations into streaks of paint that lash the train and the nebulous clouds of smoke that engulf both bridges.

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