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  • Illustrating the Accident: Railways and the Catastrophic Picturesque in The Illustrated London News
  • Paul Fyfe (bio)

In his frontispiece to The History and Description of the Great Western Railway (1846), John Cooke Bourne depicts a steam railway engine emerging from the well-sculpted mouth of a tunnel (figure 1). Intentionally left unfinished and ornamented with planted ivy, this tunnel had been styled as a gothic gateway by the hero-engineer of the Great Western, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.1 The ivy made the structure look aged and integrated with its green surroundings. Bourne tried for similar effects in his lithographs, blending the marvel of industrial engineering with the charm of natural disarray. His frontispiece—with its contrasts of light and dark, its chiseled stonework and weathered mountain blocks, and its central cloud of the engine’s steam—is a classic example of the “industrial picturesque.” Beginning in the late eighteenth century, artists adapted the picturesque to represent industrial sites, including collieries, factories, and railways. As an aesthetic category, the picturesque emphasized landscape irregularities, which, in the hands of artists like Bourne, could be made to accommodate industrial forms newly present on the landscape as well as in Britain’s social consciousness. Art historians and cultural critics have shown how the industrial picturesque reimagines the political, material, and ideological disruptions of industry in terms of pictorial harmony. As a contemporary review noted, Bourne’s prints aim to “gratify both the lover of the picturesque and the man of science: the former, by variety of lines and combinations; and the latter, by different modes of application of machinery, mechanism, and manual labor.”2 These images harmoniously integrated the railway into its natural surroundings to convey the tranquility of the picturesque.

Bourne’s work was commissioned by the Great Western as part of a campaign to assuage public anxiety about the early railway and to directly [End Page 61]

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Figure 1.

J. C. Bourne, frontispiece to The History and Description of the Great Western Railway (London: David Bogue, 1846).

counter representations of the railway’s dangers in the press. According to F. D. Klingender, the press featured a “flow of caricatures . . . designed deliberately to shake confidence by introducing the public to a feast of explosions and sudden death.”3 Picturesque railway prints, often commissioned during the construction of new lines and available for sale soon afterwards, focused on the railway’s most placid moments and idealized visual features. It is ironic, then, that the picturesque would also eventually be used in press coverage of the railway’s most sensational disasters, portraying the very dangers that railway companies hoped to downplay. A wood engraving for the Illustrated London News report “Damage to the South Devon Railway, Near Dawlish” (1855) draws its pictorial elements directly from the tradition of the industrial picturesque (figure 2). It is one [End Page 62] of many such images published in the Victorian illustrated newspapers that developed alongside the railway and capitalized on its spectacular disasters. The stylistic coincidences are uncanny, revealing how the Illustrated London News redeployed the pictorial conventions of eighteenth-century aesthetics to illustrate accident reportage.

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Figure 2.

“Damage to the South Devon Railway, Near Dawlish,” Illustrated London News, March 3, 1855, 196.

This essay argues that the aesthetic category of the industrial picturesque was paradoxically reinvigorated in depictions of industrial catastrophe, especially those circulated by illustrated newspapers. The picturesque aesthetic provides one of the more curious linkages between the railway and popular illustrated journalism.4 It proves particularly useful for studying the material production and the developing ideological concerns of the Illustrated London News. Between 1850 and 1890, the Illustrated London News published numerous illustrations of railway accidents in this style that disclosed the newspaper’s complex attitudes towards industrial modernity and its unique uses of the wood-engraved medium. These illustrations do not simply rehearse the industrial picturesque; they create a different category, a hybrid of picturesque repose and industrial rupture that I call the “catastrophic picturesque.” The catastrophic picturesque shows the Illustrated London News engaged in covering up the disturbances of [End Page 63] industrial modernity with an aesthetic that paradoxically...


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pp. 61-91
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