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Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844)

by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851)

Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: H 91 x W 121.8 cm

This is one of Turner's masterpieces, in which all of the elements of water, land and sky seem to fuse in a haze of painterly brushwork. This foggy, natural atmosphere is cut through on a sharp diagonal by a man-made train. What is Turner saying about the role of this steel locomotion in the midst of nature's fields and waterways? Can you spot the tiny boat on the left and the ploughman and his labourers on the right? Can you spot the tiny hare? Before the arrival of the train – a symbol of industrialisation – a hare would have been considered very fast.

Do Turner's loose, painterly brushstrokes help to create this distinctive atmosphere? Is the scene a depiction of what he saw or what he felt? It is likely to be a combination of his memory and imagination.

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway

Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway 1844

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851)

The National Gallery, London

Show your students this painting and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe what they can see and the features of the landscape.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views.  

Tip: use the zoom feature on the image below to look closer at details. You can open a full-screen version on The National Gallery's website.

 

 

Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • What draws your attention most in this painting? Why?
  • What modes of transport can be seen in the painting? Where might they be headed? How fast are they going?
  • What kind of noises could you hear?
  • Look at the title. How important is weather to this scene? What's the weather like? Would you need a raincoat or a sun hat?
  • What effect does steam have on our ability to see things clearly?

Suggested activity: create a soundtrack

In small groups, task your students with using vocals (e.g. singing, beatboxing) and body percussion (e.g. clapping, drumming of fingertips) to create a soundtrack that evokes Rain, Steam and Speed. How will they depict the wind and rain? And the noises of the engine and the train chugging along the track?

Ask each group to take a turn to perform their piece to the rest of the class, and feedback on one another's.

Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We'd suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):

Composition (e.g. movement)

Line

Colour

Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.

 

Comparison activity

Compare Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway with Lionel Walden's 1894 oil painting, Les docks de Cardiff.

In order to support the discussion, you may wish to focus on the following areas of the Superpower Kit: Composition, Line and Space.

Cross-curricular activities: Music / History

Extend from the earlier suggested activity into a fuller Music lesson by using musical instruments to create the soundtrack for the painting as a whole class. Untuned percussion would work particularly well such as rain sticks and cymbals, but you may wish to include other instruments available in your school.

After the music activity, you may wish to quieten things down and calm the classroom with this five-minute meditation from The National Gallery focused on the painting:

 

Alternatively, extend into a History lesson by exploring Britain's industrial history with the following film and suggested activities from BBC Teach.


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