Monday, 11 August 2008

The Savage Train

The Liverpool Walker Art Gallery's exhibition on 'Art in the Age of Steam' was an extraordinary gathering of visual art devoted to trains and railways from the 1830s onwards. Early railway landscapes show this terrifying force of modernity violating the traditional sanctities of nature (scaring horses in the fields, swathing peasants in steam). Later Impressionist images of the Gare Saint-Lazare glean fleeting moments of urban beauty from the new technology. Futurist paintings flamboyantly celebrate the dynamism and power of the locomotive in jagged, angular images that turn the entire canvas into an angry swirl of sharp edges and motion. Eerie Surrealist images distil the possibilities of anxiety or oneiric liberation that trains and their settings surreptitiously offer. And busy realist canvases from William Powell Frith's great image of Paddington Station onwards explore railway stations or train compartments as places of class confrontation and sexual opportunity.

Making one's way around this wonderful exhibition in its closing days, one couldn't help but think of William Morris's own attitudes to trains. For the most part resoundingly negative, to be sure, as the recurrent phrase in his letters - 'the savage train' - indicates well enough, and the railway is after all abolished entirely in News from Nowhere. But might there be other possibilities here too? After all, trains made the great socialist lecturing tours of the 1880s possible in the first place, and Morris did much literary composing upon them, by all accounts. Arthur Compton-Rickett wrote that Morris was 'keenly alive to the minutest points of railway organisation, which always interested him', and there even seems something of a match or analogy or even causal relationship between Morris's own jerky energies and the dynamism of the railway itself. At any rate, George Wardle noted that Morris would arrive at work 'as if he would go at 20 miles an hour and rather expected everything to keep up with him. This was, I think, the effect of the railway journey'.

Trains could be places of uncanny mystery for Morris too. May Morris tells of her father getting in to the wrong carriage on a train journey: 'the first thing he saw was his own name scratched on the glass with a diamond, "WM" ... it remains as half a story'. One could imagine De Chirico making a vividly unsettling Surrealist canvas out of this incident, with Morris bumping into evidences of an eerie urban Doppelganger haunting his every move.

Savage trains indeed, then; but beneath the kneejerk Morrisian indignation at a noisy and dirty modernist technology (which in his later years he also saw as a tool of capitalist colonisation, whether of the Lake District or of India), it might be just possible to elaborate a more nuanced account of William Morris on trains, one which would be more faithful to the whole rich spectrum of artistic responses on display at the Walker Gallery's exhilarating show.


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Owlfarmer said...

The recent distillation of Elizabeth Gaskell's "Cranford" novels on PBS offered a peek at the ambivalence provoked by the arrival of the railway in England. My own grandmother arrived at what our family now regards as Home in eastern California via the narrow gauge railway from Nevada. She lived to see the railroad disappeared entirely from the Valley, and often lamented its loss. In today's gas-fueled (and gas-fumed) culture, the train seems about as low-tech as transportation gets (except perhaps for horse-drawn coaches), and thus an emblem of a simpler life. Both Ruskin and Morris would probably chuckle at the irony.