Review: Fear and Fascination

Creating conflict in the nation's hearts ©Anne Mellar

Getting lost among the gleaming trains that fill York’s National Railway Museum, I find the art gallery hidden away round the corner. Its latest exhibition, Fear and Fascination: art from the dawn of the railways tells the story of a conflict that has gripped the nation’s imagination since the 1830. Artists have been at the heart of understanding, responding to, and shaping the perception of the railways since the beginning. Investigating the thrall of the train, this exhibition takes you on a journey through railway art.

The exhibition is in a white, bare room. Six titles, stencilled on the wall, chapter the narrative. Wandering anti-clockwise around the room, I read the story of the railway backwards, beginning with its final act: ‘acceptance.’ Here, diminutive figures are foregrounded against the huge viaducts and bridges that snake through the landscape. Dwarfed by the architecture, people picnic and go boating, whilst cattle graze. Artwork by John Wilson and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait works to establish a sense of serenity. It was pictures like theirs that helped trains to become integrated in ordinary life. Railway companies would even encourage artists to blend the architecture into the landscape. Moving through to ‘pride,’ colourful crowds of people gather at the opening ceremonies of new railway stations. Borrowing from historical architecture, the companies worked to make their new technology evermore familiar.

At the heart of the exhibition lies ‘anxiety’, arguably the most interesting section. Travelling by train meant risk and   danger. Lives, as well as livelihoods, were at stake. Trains could derail, crash, or explode. In response, artists turned to satire. One anonymous pen and ink drawing is captioned ‘travel to and fro and knowledge shall be increased’. Travelling over the globe, a train breaks apart. One of its carriage has been ripped away. Shrapnel, bodies, limbs, books, hats, heads, and an umbrella whirl through the air. Bystanders try to catch them as they fall. And all because of an exploding boiler. Drawn in thin, scratchy lines, this is a small, but disturbing, work of art.

Henry Hughes’s coloured etchings also ironically mismatch caption to reality. The first, from 1831, depicts ‘the inconvenience of a blow up - the pleasures of the railroad.’ In what was a relatively frequent event, an exploding boiler shoots out orange flames. Blown to smithereens, torsos are cast through the air. Women, their dresses splashed with vivid scarlets, indigos, and purples, tumble from the carriage, or climb out of the windows. In another ‘pleasure’ of the railroad - ‘caught in the railway!’ - two men cast bored sneers down from their carriage at the figures running from the train’s path. An man crumples angrily to the ground, his wooden leg snapped under the wheel spokes. A stricken figure, eyes shining white, peers out from the gloom underneath the carriage.

Hughes’s style is cartoonish. His pantomime figures have red cheeks, and wear ridiculous bonnets. But even slapstick cannot disguise their horror and bodily harm. Painting, by contrast, a realistic scene, E. F. Holt’s art was inspired by an accident on August 20th 1868 that killed 33 people. Here, overturned carriages disappear under the messy paint strokes of burning orange fire. Tiny figures run for help across the fields. It's a painting that captures the brutal, physical reality of railway accidents.

Arriving, then, at the start of the story, it is one that begins with ‘awe’ and ‘wonder.’ Drawings depict the excavation of the landscape in clean, sanitised lines. Art is just beginning to become a means for Britain to understand the railways, and what they might be capable of. The exhibition’s preface invites viewers to imagine a world before the dawn of the railways; a smaller world, and with a slower pace of life. For, from the 1830s, trains would sweep the country, striking fear and fascination in people’s hearts.

There is simplicity in the design of the exhibition. The information it contains is almost minimal. Although understated, if you look closely, the art itself tells a striking story. Turning, finally, to the exhibition's last page, a note reads that, as a result of this process, ‘both the fear and fascination disappeared.’ Has it?



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