Meta-ornament: railway tracks

4 10 2012

Tracks on the southern approach to Manchester from Stockport

According to Walter Benjamin, railway tracks had a ‘peculiar and unmistakeable dream world’ attached to them, one that, for early railway travellers, was related to their unprecedented straightness in the landscape, their geometric alignment, or in their wider convergence into networks. Early railway prints in the 1830s and 1840s (1) emphasized the sharp linearity of railway tracks, cutting through the landscape with unprecedented geometric precision; while contemporaneous travellers were transfixed by the seemingly infinite recession of parallel tracks.

1. T. T Bury’s view of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway over Chat Moss, 1830


                                2. 1898 film from the front of a train in Barnstable

As recorded by Edward Stanley in 1830, when he witnessed a locomotive approaching from the far distance, train tracks seemed to compress space and time and usher in a new form of perception; Stanley thought the parallel tracks made the engine seem to increase in size ‘beyond all limit’ as it came nearer, eventually ‘absorbing everything within its vortex’. A similar fascination came at the end of nineteenth century, when railway tracks formed some of the earliest subjects for film: that is, in the ‘phantom ride’ (2), a term used to mean a film that looks from the front of a moving railway engine along the tracks themselves. Here, the novel view of the camera (one that was seldom experienced in ordinary life) combined its ‘subjective’ view with an inaccessible position that laid bare, through an unwavering emphasis on the endless perspective of the parallel tracks, the disembodied consciousness of the railway journey.

3. Railway maps of England in 1850 (left) and Britain in 1900 (right)

If railway tracks suggested a new kind of machine aesthetic, defined by extreme linearity and a corresponding overturning of ‘natural’ perception, then the conglomeration of tracks into networks seemed to produce revolutionary new patterns – or ‘meta-ornament’ in the landscape. In its early decades, the new railways spread at a seemingly exponential rate across Britain, from just under 100 miles of track in 1830 to over 6,000 by 1850 (3; left), rising to 19,000 by 1900 (3; right). Yet, their growth was far from ordered, the consequence of unregulated competition among private railway companies, and for some, the resulting network was perceived as alarmingly chaotic. Punch pictured its own ‘Railway map of England’ in 1845 (4), at the height of railway speculation in that decade, with the English landscape of the near future enmeshed ‘in irons’, with no ordering principle to the layout. Left unregulated, the railway companies would, Punch argued, eventually create so many tracks that ‘we shall soon be unable to go anywhere without crossing the line’.

4. Punch’s ‘Railway map of England’, 1845

For others, the speed at which the railway network spread across the country was nothing short of miraculous: The Builder arguing in 1852 that the railways were ‘preparing the world for a wondrous future’ when they would unite the whole of humanity ‘as one great family’. Later, when a new railway was constructed between Buxton and Bakewell in 1876, The Builder argued that the iron tracks enhanced the picturesque landscape through which they passed by adding a ‘new element of what may be called the mental or moral picturesque’. In contrast to John Ruskin, who bitterly opposed the building of the new line, The Builder perceived ‘a kind of mystery’ in the track’s ‘windings and burrowings’ through the soft landscape which, taken as a whole, were strongly suggestive of the ‘bond of civilization that connects us’. If Ruskin lamented the railway’s tendency to obliterate beloved landscapes and their traditional cultural forms in its gigantic network of lines, The Builder had the opposite reaction: railway tracks became picturesque precisely because of their connectivity, that is, the way in which they created, through ‘the triumph of science’, new geographic and social networks that had a high moral purpose.

Sketching, photography and the tourist gaze

30 08 2011

Sketch of buildings at Freeland, Oxfordshire, 2004

‘Today everything exists to end in a photograph’ (Susan Sontag)

Writing in 1979, Sontag could never have anticipated the explosion of photography that came with the introduction and rapid dissemination of the digital camera. Today, to be a tourist is primally to see places and people through the lens of a digital camera. This recent shift to digital technology has resulted in an unimaginable increase in the sheer volume of pictures taken; from my own experience, in the three years after 2003 I took nearly 1500 photographs on my old Pentax SLR-camera; post-digital, I’ve amassed over 14,000 images in the past three years alone and probably taken at least double that. It’s not just the quantity of images that has changed: we also perceive the world differently through a digital camera – from the considered setting up of shots and the awareness of the finite resources of film to a faster, more throwaway kind of perception, one that tends towards amassing rather than reflection.

John Urry has reflected on the role of photography in contemporary tourism. His definition of the ‘tourist gaze’ is bound up with a certain kind of perception, one that is focused on looking at objects in a specific way. For the tourist (and we are all tourists to some extent), photography becomes part of the construction of objects to gaze at – a search for the photogenic itself which tends to turn the environment into a series of snapshot images to be recalled when we’ve returned home. Yet, as Urry states, many tourists are often disappointed with their photographs because their memories of a view or place are richer and fuller than their photographs. However, this doesn’t necessarily lead to a questioning of the ability of photography to ‘capture’ this fuller picture, or indeed of the search for an alternative.

By drawing or sketching, rather than photographing, one enters an altogether different perceptual world, one that plunges you into this fuller picture. With pencil and paper, irrespective of artistic ability or the intended quality of the drawing, you commit yourself to seeing differently – seeing for longer and in a more sustained way. The result is that, in a far more effective way than photography, sketching helps you to remember. To illustrate something of what I mean, I present a few examples of my own sketches and how I remember through them…

1. The Giralda in Seville, 2009

An hour in the square east of the Giralda in Seville on a warm afternoon at the end of October in 2009. As my drawing moved slowly down from the top to the bottom of the tower, hammering continued in the square, along with a procession of tourists arriving and leaving the city, bags on wheels and taxis coming and going. This commanding building, with such a pronounced sense of the vertical, seems to require some kind of extended contemplation, especially when the gigantic bells start ringing, which they did as I sketched, creating a sound which seems to fill the whole city.

2. The Nant Francon valley, Snowdonia, Wales, 2003

On my way back from a walk up the back of Carnedd Dafydd, to admire its cliffs, I stopped in the Nant Francon valley, just before reaching the cottage where I was staying, and decided to sketch the view. In rapidly-fading light and a plummeting temperature, I hurriedly drew the forms of the mountains that filled sides and head of the valley, their names already familiar in my mind – Carnedd Dafydd, Tryfan, the Glyders, Foel Goch. The light was crystal clear, as it had been for days, but the cold was finger-numbing and the drawing had to be done very quickly. Despite this, the result still pleases me as it reminds me of the conditions under which it was made.

3. Vernazza, Italy, 2003

A second visit to the beautiful coast of Liguria in Italy and its ‘five lands’, this sketch of Vernazza, where I was staying, was made sitting on a wall in the first hot sunshine I’d experienced that year. Here, drawing was limited by uncomfortable heat and the heavy lines indicate a rather hurried method. But I also remember a deliberate sense of slowing down in response to a time of crisis in my life – a sense of wanting to stop, to allow myself some space. Here, sketching was one of the ways I did this, in a familiar environment where the ‘sights’ had already been seen on a previous visit.

4. The Citadel, Aleppo, 2008

Here, the finished drawing is less important than the context in which it was drawn. It’s not a very good sketch, primarily because, for most of the time I was drawing the citadel, I was surrounded by a group of 20 boys celebrating with their Eid presents – replica guns which they brandished at me and at each other. They also jibed me with ridiculous questions, jostled my arms and even tried to help me with the drawing, adding bits here and there. As a result I retreated to a nearby empty cafe, ate an expensive and horribly tepid lunch and ended up in the hospital the following day with a nasty case of food poisoning that was initially and very worryingly diagnosed as an inflamed appendix.


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