All entries for Friday 11 December 2009

December 11, 2009

The Railways in Art

I've spent the term writing about representations of railways in Victorian literature, out of which have emerged some interesting and unexpected themes and ideas. So far the chapter falls around two main themes: the carriage as a disruptive force that severs the body from connection with the surounding journey-space; and the new spatial context that the carriage produces within itself. In both, images of the body of the travelling subject provide a locus for understanding the new and disrupted spatial contexts that the railway produces.

Often, literary representations are characterised by absence: many journeys aren't described in great detail, travelling bodies often disappear from view. This makes the fleeting glances of travellers all the more interesting- often, the merest appearance of a hand here, or a railway rug there, provide rich sites for analysis within the context of spatiality. For instance, Dickens' description of Dombey's journey notes how objects appear "close at hand and almost in the grasp, ever flying from the travellers, and a deceitful distance ever moving slowly with him” (p.311); that slight reference to Dombey’s hand is so crucial in articulating the loss of embodied contact with journey-space that the railway journey enforces, capturing how spatial perception is thrown into confusion not only due to the velocity of the train but also because the body has lost its relational sense of spatial understanding in this new mode of travel in which space can only be perceived, not experienced in an embodied sense, through the barrier of the window.

Much of this analysis depends on constructing theoretical frameworks for understanding the significance of these passages, and artistic representations of the railways are useful here in supporting and developing a sense of how the carriage-space was perceived and understood. The exhibition Art in the Age of Steam that I went to last year has been extremely useful in this respect, thanks to the wonderful exhibition catalogue that I was lucky enough to be given. I've been looking in particular at images of railway carriage interiors, which aren't often detailed in the texts I'm looking at, and paintings therefore provide a useful supplement for thinking about how this new spatial context was conceptualised. Augustus Egg's "The Travelling Companions" (1862) is especially indicative, full of suggestions that resonate with the ideas I've been working on.

"Travelling Companions"

The painting emphasises the enclosure and privacy of the railway carriage: the framing of the visual field is such that the compartment is seemingly little bigger than that of a horse-drawn carriage, and everything is close, pushed in upon itself. The mirroring of the two girls exaggerates this sense of enclosure, drawing the carriage space in upon itself, and also creates this as an intensely private scene, locking the girls (presumably sisters) into a self-contained unit. This private bond between them places the domestic as central to the image, and everything about the interior operates to suggest that they are within a domestic interior; there's a complete denial of this as public, open space and the doubling furthers this by acting to exclude the possibility of anything else entering into this frame of vision.

The possibility of anything else entering the carriage is further prevented by the voluminous dresses that take up almost half of the picture - this provides an interesting resonance with literary depictions in which we so frequently see characters bundelled or parcelled up in numerous coats, rugs, blankets etc. Here, this "parcelling up" asserts their class status, surrounding the women in wealth and luxury which offers layers of protection from the industrialised mode of transport - there is not the merest suggestion of the railway as machine ensemble here. The dresses also act on gendered terms - that these women can travel alone in the carriage reflects the new travel possibilities that railways provided women with; but questions and concerns of the propriety of women travelling alone were subject of much discussion in the early years of railway travel and in literature women risk being villified for doing so (in the texts I've read, women often travel alone only in desperate or extraordinary circumstances). The enclosure of the carriage entailed potential connotations as a sexualised space (although that goes back to horse-drawn carriages too- think of Madame Bovary): but here, there's safety suggested as the "travelling companions" ensure propriety is upheld; and the layers of their dresses conceal their bodies from the possibility of sexual contact or the intrusion of a gazing male - there's literally no space for a male intruder with all those layers of silk!

So we have here a space that seems to be drawing away from its reality as a railway-compartment and instead seeking to recreate a feminised, domestic sense of space. Even the view from the window resists the railway: although this centralised, the view beyond features as little more than a back-drop to the foreground. It's also so static: there is no suggestion that the train is moving rapidly, not only is the view perfectly framed but only the curtain tassle at the top of the window shows any sign of movement. It's typical, too, to see the girls engaged in reading and sleeping- the railway journey enables the traveller to do something other than travel; travelling is now a privatised, individual experience. But this is, of coures, only to consider the first-class carriage; a very different experience of rail travel is presented in images of third-class carriages- but I'll save that for another blog post soon.

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