Travel historian, Dr Anna P H Geurts, shares with us how visual sources can provide a more nuanced perspective on late 19th-century ideas of ‘distance’ and steam travel.
As an historian of travel, I have looked at railway passengers’ experiences of distance. But what was the meaning of distance for the people along the tracks, as they observed the machines carrying those passengers thundering past?
An important painting from the 1880s addresses precisely this question. ‘Il vient de loin’ – he/it comes from afar – by Dutch impressionist Paul Joseph Constantin Gabriël has at least three things to say about distance.
1) This painting problematizes progress. Many visual and literary artworks of the nineteenth century set up a dichotomy between tradition and progress, between nature and technology, between a supposedly static country-side and a dynamic industrial sector. Some artists were enthusiastic about technological developments, others critical, a third group ambiguous.
Gabriël, too, clearly referred to these contemporary concerns in his work. It is no coincidence that Gabriël’s painting is reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s famous ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, which like many works of its time emphasised both the beauty and the threat of steam technology.
Taking just Gabriël’s title – ‘he/it comes from afar’, it makes sense to read this from the perspective of the angler resting against the gate in this Dutch polder landscape: representing the local and the traditional, the angler sees the train ‘coming from afar’. Indeed, the technology of steam locomotion arrived in continental Europe from across the sea – developed in Britain, steam trains may initially have been an exotic technology in the rest of Europe. The steam engines used on the early Dutch railways even continued to be imported from Britain for quite some time, for lack of a local industry.
Of course, ‘afar’ may refer to the individual train in the picture, too. The angler looks like he has just come sauntering into the scene from a nearby farmstead. Within his frame of reference, it might be argued, the train has already travelled a lot of track before entering into view – although we are probably talking about a few tens or hundreds of kilometres at most. Trains cross vast distances; farmers and fisher-people stay put, the painting seems to say.
In all these cases, the new technology can be read as an alien presence in this landscape, and if this was indeed the predominant perception in the 1880s, we should not be too surprised if the railways occasionally met with a hostile reception.
2) What makes Gabriël’s painting interesting, however, is its ambiguity: who exactly is coming from afar? Rather than the train, the title could refer to the angler.
This interpretation makes a lot of sense if we follow the painter’s cue to look at the angler: an Everyman. It is he who comes from afar. That is: humankind has come far: from humbly hunting for food, through shaping the land to make it suitable for farming, to the modern industrial economy. This second interpretation sits equally comfortably with prevalent nineteenth-century views. And so, when looking at the steam engine, the angler is really looking at his own achievements, perhaps pondering whether they please him.
3) But possibly the most interesting view this painting offers on distances has little to do with nineteenth-century debates. Instead, it has everything to do with a sensation that cannot have been unique to the nineteenth century.
We see: a polder landscape. A canal in the middle. On the right: anglers, some ducks. On the left: a telegraph line, the approaching train still in the distance. And two thirds of the painting: sky. A single vanishing point, a simple composition.
What’s more, the entire picture is permeated by the single element of water. The sky is filled with clouds, the air with steam; the land is bisected by a canal and the earth saturated with groundwater. The anglers find their food in the water; the travellers power their movement with the help of water turned into steam. This is a thoroughly wet scene, a scene with much less contrast or conflict than Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’.
And so, everything about this balanced picture speaks of quiet. (Apart perhaps from the already restlessly vertical telegraph poles.)
Yet we know the train is coming. Its approaching cloud of steam seems to progressively envelop the land. Not just that, but it moves from the central vanishing point to the front of the scene. It gets all the attention, that of the angler as well as ours.
It will enter the landscape and for a brief moment be at its very foreground, dominating the scene with its noise and its steam, its hard wheels on the track, its smells and its black body towering on the embankment; for a few seconds the angler resting against the gate will hear or see nothing but the train … and then it’ll be gone.
It is this ephemerality, the fleeting quality of this sensation of a train passing by, that Gabriël pictures. He pictures not just the brief moment of the train’s overwhelming presence, but also its absence on either side of that moment.
‘Coming from afar’ then means: being there for an instant only, and soon belonging to another place again.
It is a sensation we know all too well, and one that overlaps with some of the sensations had by people on a train.
And so, in the same decade of 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson published his memorable ‘From a Railway Carriage’:
Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!
Gabriël’s painting forms part of the collections of the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, the Netherlands (KM 100.143).
Turner’s painting can be found in the National Gallery, London.
Dr Anna P H Geurts (University of Sheffield/ University of Nottingham) is a teacher and researcher at the intersection of spatial history and language. She has published on homeliness, sociability and travel writing and initiated the University of Sheffield Faculty of Arts and Humanities partnership with the British National Railway Museum. This post forms a further reflection on the themes discussed in her article ‘Trains, Bodies, Landscapes: Experiencing Distance in the Long Nineteenth Century’, published in The Journal of Transport History (2019). More about this article can be found on the Historian at Large. Geurts is preparing a book on related themes with Routledge: Travel and Space in Nineteenth-Century Europe.