Steam Engines–Some Paintings

This is a painting by the 18th century British painter William James, entitled “View of the Thames Showing Westminster, painted in 1765.

It is described on the website “London in the Mid Eighteenth Century” in the following way:

This is William James’s View of the Thames Showing Westminster which was painted around 1765. Sancho would have been very familiar with this view. James’s vantage point appears to be a boat in mid-river, a little to the north of the present day Hungerford Bridge. From left to right you can see Westminster Bridge, The House of Commons (two white towers) and Westminster Hall. Very prominent is Westminster Abbey with its (then) two new towers. The white Portland stone and neo-classical design of the Banqueting House make this the most prominent building on Whitehall, in the centre of this painting. The curious spire-like building is an early steam engine, used for pumping water at the York Buildings Water Works. The York Buildings Watergate is in the foreground, although since the Embankment was completed in 1870 this has been stranded some fifty metres from the river.

I won’t comment myself, but I invite you to think about the steam engine in the picture–and how it relates to the rest of the painting!

Again, here is a painting by the American painter George Inness, “The Erie and Lackawanna Railroad” from roughly a century later (it was America, after all), 1855:

Again I ask, how does the steam engine relate to the rest of the picture?

And finally here’s a painting from London, doubtless in the 19th century. The image (unidentified) comes from a great webpage on Wordsworth and the expanding industrial landscape of his time

Now I ask how this image relates to Wordsworth’s poem “Steamboats, Viaducts and Railways”?

And having thought about that, consider this: this is Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden considering the enthusiasm that the new steam machinery aroused in popular and even highbrow essays, pamphlets, and books in the U.S.:

“Armed with this new power, mankind is now able, for the first time, to realize the dream of  abundance. The entire corpus of intoxicated prose seems to rest on the simple but irresistible logic of first things first: all other hopes, for peace, equality, freedom, and happiness, are felt to rest upon technology. The fable of Prometheus is invoked on all sides. In his essay on “History” (1841), Emerson uses the example of the fire-stealer to suggest how “advancing man” unveils the authentic facts, such as the “invention of the mechanic arts,” beneath the surface of ancient myth. “What a range of meanings and what perpetual pertinence,” he says, “has the story of Prometheus!”  pp. 192-3.

And more:

“Indeed it would almost seem as though he [Man] were not but just entering on that dominion over the earth, which was assigned to him at the beginning. No longer, as once, does he stand trembling amid the forces of nature.” (194)

“The wide air and deep waters, the tall mountains, the outstretched plains, and the earth’s deep caverns, are become parcel of his domain and yield freely of their treasures to his researches and toils. The terrible ocean . . . conveys . . . [him] submissively . . . . He has almost annihilated space and time.” (194)

“Objects of exalted power and grandeur elevate the mind that seriously dwells on them, and impart to it greater compass and strength. Alpine scenery and an embattled ocean deepen contemplation and give their own sublimity to the conceptions of beholders. The same will be true of our system of Rail-roads. Its vastness and magnificence will prove communicable, and add to the standard of the intellect of our country.” (195)

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