Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway

As the speed of living increases, we often find ourselves rushing through our various experiences. The painting Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway by William Turner depicts a laceration of the lush English countryside by the great new railway which connected major cities across the country. The rail is not just a new, faster and a more effective means of travel to new destinations; it also signifies a change in society. It is the age of industrialisation which set the foundations for the current society.

The painting can be interpreted as external view of this new-found speed of living, yet still giving importance to the element of nature, as though reminding us of God’s presence around us for ‘In His hands are the depths of the earth’ (Psalm 95:4). The juxtaposition of the farmer, the hare, the stone bridge and the train brings out the contrast in the speed of travel and the way we experience our life journey. The pristine landscape is painted in gold, with the farmer and the hare barely visible. The stone bridge, also in gold and a symbol of man’s innovation, is a slower means of travel which allows us to enjoy the landscape of our lives as it naturally unfolds around us.  The train, predominantly in black, is a symbol of man’s progress moving towards modernisation, the ‘Western Society’ and the fast life. The train, travelling with great speed towards the end destination, is a capsule which shuts out the landscape around us. The farmer and the rabbit are also journeying with a slower and deliberate pace, working with the natural storms of life, feeling comfort in the rain that heals, clarifies and brings new life. The hare represents the natural speed of life, a reminder that life is fast. However, the hare experiences the journey by living in the surrounding atmosphere. The train, and hence, our capsuled life, is the fast track to the end of our goal, shutting out the external atmosphere. The vision around the train is blurred and darkened by the negativity that grows around the eagerness to get to the finishing line fast.

The imagery presented, an atmosphere captured by impressionistic interpretation, is made blurry, and unified, by the downpour of rain combined with the train’s steam. The rain, usually associated with despair, also brings hope of new life. It may also be seen as the presence of God surrounding us, giving us hope as we journey through the various atmospheres of life. Even the blackness of the train and the new rail are softened by the rain, as though reminding us that the presence of God is always around us, even in our capsuled life which shuts out any external influences.

We all go through different phases in our lives, crossing various landscapes and atmospheres which create the experience of the journey and, regardless of the speed of our travel, we are all journeying towards our end goal. This is our choice: do we journey through the rains and landscapes of our lives and acknowledge the beauty of God in the atmospheres around us, or do we speed through life and ignore the positive experiences life can bring?

Rebecca Bezzina

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844). The National Gallery, London

Pietre Vive is an international community of Ignatian youths, both lay and not, who aim to provide individuals and groups of people with the opportunity to rediscover Christian monuments and works of art in their original role of hospitality, evangelisation and prayer. Email: [email protected]

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