Rain, steam and speed

For those of you who have been following Invective since the beginning, you may be surprised by my choice of image today. Yes, I’ve given you Peter Lanyon and Prunella Clough, who, although they are very different painters, both represent a particularly British way of looking at landscape – which is at once modern and complex, and driven by internal as well as external forces. Both of them wanted to celebrate the landscapes they loved: for Lanyon, the West Penwith coast; for Clough, the brown field sights of South London and Essex. But neither one of them could have painted the way they did without Turner. Not to say that Turner was a direct influence, but it was Turner whose ground-breaking style (if that’s not too much of a pun when talking about landscape painting) gave them permission. Rain, Steam and Speed is one of Turner’s most extraordinary images, and for me it represents the moment when the industrial meets the pastoral (like in Hardy’s novels, or Wordworth’s poems). Andrew Graham-Dixon says of this picture: 

The train was not just a contraption which moved Turner from place to place more quickly than ever before. It moved him emotionally. It made him see the world as never before. He put this into the very style of his picture, conjuring up effects of blur and rush to celebrate a new speeded up vision. Turner had looked the future full in the face. He had found it beautiful. He had found it exhilarating.

I have stood in front of this painting many times and felt moved, not just by the sensation of speed Turner is able to evoke, but moved emotionally. It’s an odd feeling to be moved by a painting, and it is difficult to say why. Something about a particular arrangement of shape and colour and line. The same way a poem affects you when you don’t always understand its meaning, but the language and imagery strike something subconscious.

The poem that follows (which was published in my last collection, Fetch) is directly inspired by not only Turner’s painting, but the experience of standing in front of it in the National Gallery and being moved, and then watching other people standing in front of it perhaps experiencing the same transformation. I’m a fan of Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photographs observing crowds of people in galleries, and I wanted to capture something of that collective experience of looking at art in a public place (while undergoing some private emotion).

I’m off to Tate Britain in a little while, and although I am not going for the Turners, I feel I will have to call in on them while I’m there, just to say hello.


Portrait of a Couple Looking at a Turner Landscape


They stand, not quite touching,

before a world after storm.


There are drops of moisture in her hair,

in his scarf

                 the colour of a gentler sea, his eyes,


while trains depart every minute, steaming

into the future, where the hills


unroll themselves,

vast plains of emerald and gold


            (she undressed for him, slowly,

             her skin like cloud under dark layers)


after rooms of Rubens and Fragonard, flesh dead

against old brocade

                                (their flesh alive in the white sheets).




There are trains departing.

                                        When they part

it will be night, outside a theatre, near the station,


        and the sky will be blown with stars,

too dim to see in the glare of neon.


They will stand on concrete and asphalt,

                                    the innocent shining sands


lost. The world tilts to meet her face,

he holds her face close


           and something closes in on them,

the weight of silence in the street,


the winter horizon, bright, huge,

the moment before

                                 the sky opens and it pours.