Engineering and the artist’s eye


Painting and graphic arts

Creativity and engineering frequently go hand in hand, but not always for aesthetic reasons. Arthur Bourne writes on artistically inspiring engineering achievements, from steam trains to skyscrapers, and on the unique relationship between artist and engineer.

Note: We have space in Ingenia to show only a few examples of the paintings referred to here, but some of those not featured can be found at the web sites given in the references.

Artists and engineers add greatly to our lives, differently but importantly. This truth shouldn’t be too surprising because they have much in common, including their origins. Some contemporary engineers are also accomplished artists, as were many of their predecessors, and not a few artists have strong leanings towards engineering, even to the extent of being trained as engineers. Close as they may be, engineers and artists do, obviously, have very different agendas. The engineer’s creativity has a utilitarian goal, whereas the artist’s creativity is essentially an expression of a particular vision of the world. An attribute the best of both professions share is an eye for the aesthetic but it is not aesthetics alone that inspires artists. There is another, somewhat intangible quality, that for some artists makes even the engineering process itself intrinsically inspirational.

The ‘intangible’ is rather like gravity; you can’t adequately describe it but you can experience it. The difference is we can measure gravity but the ‘intangible’ we can’t. The only way to understand what we mean by the intangible is to transform it into something that can be felt and this is the role of the artist. To see how successful this transformation can be, we have to look at a work of art having this ‘quality’. To illustrate my point I have chosen a painting,1 Julian Bourne’s impression of our galaxy viewed from a distant point in outer space. In the foreground of the whirling swarm of stars is a diminutive space probe. With that diminutive probe the artist has managed to imbue the painting with a palpable sense of loneliness, even a poignancy of sadness. The probe, as the artist sees it, is our progeny, near enough on a footing with a child, but unlike a child its worth rests entirely in its utility.

The probe as portrayed in the painting and the actual probe in the real world on our side of the canvas has completed its mission, its utility is over; consequently it has been abandoned to whatever fate awaits it in the vastness of the Universe.* Bourne, describing his feelings that inspired the painting, wrote that it was ‘a very special machine’: ‘I felt compelled to paint an icon to the most significant human achievement so far’. In Voyager, the title of the work, the artist has recorded a real event and the feelings it engenders and, in my view, portrays successfully the special relationship that exists between ourselves and the structures and machines we create. Through expressing this relationship he has transformed for us that intangible quality and at the same time defined it; it is the ‘essence’ of the achievement. To imbue a work of art with this ‘essence’ requires sensitivity and creative talents of a very high order, and to identify so closely with a machine, as has the creator of Voyager, also requires a very special relationship to be established between it and the artist.

This is recent; this is very twentieth century. There are many earlier portraits of machinery, most by engineers, but few, if any, have this close identification with the machine. It had to wait for artists to perceive engineering as the ‘subject of’, not a ‘subject in’ painting, a change in perception that began in the later half of the eighteenth century and developed through the nineteenth. One of the twentieth-century artists who made engineering the ‘subject of’ their work was Edna Lumb who had a highly developed feeling for the personality imbued in machines and engineering structures. This relationship endows all her drawings and paintings with a rare authenticity and above all that elusive quality of essence we are seeking. In her The Orthopaedic Ward2 she induces a similar poignancy to that evoked by Voyager. It is a painting of one of the semi-dismantled hydraulic engines that once lifted and lowered London’s Tower Bridge; its piston is supported by a sling prior to its removal from the engine room, hence the title. This humorous, yet apposite, title tells us much about her feelings for machinery.

Though Edna Lumb had this emotional attachment to machines, she never lost sight of that other relationship, the one between the machines and the people who construct or operate them, a relationship epitomised in her painting Bean’s Foundry, Tipton.3 A picture in which we, the viewers, share the heat of the furnace with the foundry workers as they pour the hot molten metal. It is a dramatic evocation of the atmosphere of work, a technique used by many of the earlier artists who recorded the emerging Industrial Revolution, several of whom chose foundries as their subjects; Joseph Wright of Derby, Paul Sandby and Philip de Loutherbourg, to name but three of the many. Loutherbourg’s Coalbrookdale by Night4 is particularly dramatic, evoking as it does the energy and power of the new industries.

Another artist who caught this everyday drama of the process of engineering was John Cooke Bourne, a little known painter of Lakeland scenes; that was until he became the visual chronicler of the construction of both Robert Stephenson’s London and Birmingham Railway and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western Railway. Inspired by the colossal engineering task, he devoted his very considerable talent to recording in drawings and paintings the construction of these railways, leaving us lasting images of the cuttings, bridges, tunnels and the men who built and dug them: the tunnelling machines then were the pick and shovel powered by human muscle. In an exquisite drawing5 of a mason fashioning a piece of stone for the facing of one of Brunel’s tunnel entrances, the artist has immortalised an unknown but significant actor in a great enterprise.* John Cooke Bourne’s prodigious output of drawings and paintings has earned him an honoured place in engineering art.

The railways stimulated many artists, from Cooke Bourne and his contemporaries to our own times; even the Impressionists seem to have had a particular penchant for them. J.M.W. Turner, arguably England’s greatest Impressionist landscape painter, summed up what the railways offered in his Rain, Steam, Speed.6 The painting cannot be by anyone else, a rain-swept scene with a train emerging from the downpour across a viaduct towards the viewer; there is all the drama and atmosphere that one expects of Turner. With this painting Turner added to iron, coal and steam, another key player in the nascent industrial age, ‘speed’, with the implication of, relative to what was available before, comfort. Speed was later to inspire a group of artists calling themselves the ‘School of Futurists’. Led by Filippo Marinetti they eschewed the bucolic and all things natural: they were captivated by the Machine Age, its energy, and the boldness of its engineers. The Futurists made their credo ‘a life of steel and headlong speed’, arguably the most extreme expression of the inspirational effect of engineering on artists.

The French Impressionists Camille Pissarro and Claude Monet seized the opportunities railways gave the artist. Camille Pissarro’s Lordship Lane Station, Upper Norwood 7 is one of the first, following Turner, Impressionist paintings where the train is ‘the’ subject. Claude Monet’s La Gare Saint- Lazare8 immortalised the hustle and bustle of a busy station; a scene reminding us how quickly railways had taken hold. The inspiration for Monet was the newness of the scene, its seemingly chaotic movement and especially the colours and light effects produced by the steam and smoke of the locomotives. He went to great lengths to capture the busy atmosphere of the station, just as he was later to catch the quieter mood of place in his Water-garden at Giverny.9

It was Claude Monet, too, who was to change the art world’s perception of another engineering achievement. Bridges, those quintessential engineering structures, had been a ‘subject in’ rather than a ‘subject of’ paintings until the Iron Bridge in Coalbrookdale appeared. From then on iron bridges with their lightness with strength, ‘filigree’ of girders and, later, the ‘flying’ aspect of suspended decks, were to excite artists and opened up the view that bridges, and not just iron bridges, were worthy subjects in themselves and not merely a means to identify place or to make a break between landscape and sky as they had been hitherto. An example of the latter is Turner’s The Thames near Walton Bridges,10 where the subject is the Thames. Although there are many paintings, drawings and engravings of the Iron Bridge, more than a decade was to pass before bridges became generally recognised in their own right, but when they did, it was done spectacularly by Claude Monet. In two paintings, Westminster Bridge11 and The Bridge at Argenteuil ,12 Monet used bridges as the ‘subject of’ his compositions; the transformation ‘in’ to ‘of’ had been made. Any lingering doubt whether it was inspiration that triggered the change was erased by Emile Bernard who not only chose bridges as the subject of his paintings but called the most famous of them Les Ponts de Fer (The Iron Bridges),13 and for good measure added a train passing over the nearest of the two bridges, a nice touch that Paul Signac also used in his painting of the same bridges, Le Pont d’Asnieres.14 Two other, though very different, entrants to this pantheon who turned their attention to bridges are the cubist George Braque, with L’Estaque: Viaduct and Houses15 and the abstract artist Albert Gleizes, with Bridges in Paris,16 Landscape17 and Brooklyn Bridge.18

By the time Bernard and Signac painted their trains crossing over Les Ponts de Fer and Le Pont d’Asnieres, the ‘heroic age’ of railway construction was all but over. Perhaps fittingly then it is a painting of a bridge that marked the climax of one of England’s great heroic engineering epochs. The painting, by Thomas Valentine Robin, is of Prince Albert opening Brunel’s bridge over the Tamar at Saltash19 in 1859. In the painting the artist has caught the Prince Consort, sailing beneath the bridge on the Royal Yacht, raising his hat in salute to a creative engineer and a great engineering achievement. Sadly the occasion also marked the end of the engineer; the bridge’s designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was dying.

Just as the Coalbrookdale Iron Bridge heralded in the new as far as bridge builders were concerned, Joseph Paxton’s prefabricated Crystal Palace for the great Exhibition of 1851 introduced new thinking for structural engineers. Its construction of iron and glass and erection in just six months was breathtaking, a record enviable today. The artists of the time were as enthralled with the Crystal Palace as they had been with the iron bridges and railways. The Crystal Palace in its original position in Hyde Park is caught in watercolour by Charlotte, Viscountess Canning,20 but even after it had been re-erected in Sydenham, South London, artists were still attracted to paint it – Camille Pissarro on a visit to his sister in England painted his Le Crystal Palace.21 Nearly 40 years were to pass before another structure was to attract artists as had the Crystal Palace; it was the Tour Eiffel in Paris.

Gustave Eiffel’s tower has dominated the Parisian skyline for over 100 years and, if the number of paintings, drawings and engravings are anything to go on, it must rate as one of the most inspiring of engineering structures of the late nineteenth century. Four of the many will have to suffice to provide an idea of the range of artists who portrayed the tower. The first is the engraving Illumination of the Eiffel Tower22 by George Garen, published for the 1889 Universal Exhibition to celebrate the tower in all its newness. The choice of an engraving is deliberate because it evokes the excitement of the celebrations: the illuminated tower, its searchlights sweeping the night sky and fireworks exploding into fans of stars give the ‘feel’ of the exuberance of the time. The second is The Eiffel Tower23 by pointillist George Seurat. This is a quieter painting; the artist used his technique of applying small dabs of paint to the canvas to create an image of the tower soaring upwards until the top disappears; the explanation for the disappearance is that the tower had not been completed! The third and fourth are by Robert Delaunay who produced two of the most compelling of all the paintings of the tower. In The Eiffel Tower Framed Between Curtains24 and Champ de Mars, Red Eiffel Tower,25 the tower is no passive structure: it is as dynamic and dominating as is the real thing. In the Champ de Mars, Red Eiffel Tower, the dominating effect is strengthened by the flattened and fragmented composition and the juxtaposition of the angular buildings that surround it. In The Eiffel Tower Framed Between Curtains it is achieved by the artist’s clever use of framing the view of the tower, as the title suggests, between the curtains of a window.

The Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower can be thought of as being in a genre of their own: one-off structures, their singularity explaining their attraction to the artist, but what about the essentially twentieth-century engineering triumph of the vertical, the skyscraper? New York skyscrapers appear as the subject, as do the Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower, in hundreds of paintings. It is the sheer audacity of the engineering that excites the artist, so it is not surprising to learn it was the engineering that kick-started Theodore Hancock’s interest in skyscrapers. Hancock, who we will meet again later, was an artist who undoubtedly had a feel for the engineering ‘bones’ of the skyscraper; he wrote, ‘Without many people spending thousands of man-hours poring over drawing boards and consulting charts, diagrams, graphs, architectural plans and, now more and more frequently computers [a skyscraper] would not exist’. He produced a number of beautiful water colours of the New York skyline which portray the sublime nature of the buildings. In his semi-abstract East Side Skyline,26 a cityscape framed and interwoven with steel girders symbolising the engineering structures, to accentuate the vertical he cuts horizontally through the scene with the Brooklyn Bridge.

More recently, Ben Johnson has provided us with a closer insight of this ‘engineered’ underpinning of architectural structures. In his painting of the transfer structures,27 used in the Lee House redevelopment in London, the composition is as spectacular as it is beautiful. The combination of precision draughtsmanship and subtle colouring from sky blue at the top to a sunset glow at the bottom, symbolising the east–west positioning of the structure, gives a sensation of lightness combined with strength. The painting is so powerful that it evokes a feeling of unease as these huge steel structures hover over us.

Our most recent ‘heroic engineering epoch’ is in space. Although further lunar landings have not been ruled out, those of us who lived through the early days of lunar exploration felt that they were particularly heady. We all acknowledged the heroics of the astronauts and marvelled at the enabling engineering and engineers who made it possible. Artists were soon responding as their predecessors had to the heroics of the railways. Peter Hurd’s Predawn28 is a striking portrayal of a launch pad being readied for a blast-off. As the title suggests, the time is just before dawn when the darkness of the night seems at its most intense, floodlights illuminate the brilliant red gantry for the engineers and technicians busying themselves with the preparations for the launch. Theodore Hancock’s Pad 3729 and Count Down to a Mars Mariner Launching,30 and James Wyeth’s View down Gantry Row31 convey the unique aura that surrounds sites that have been witness to heroic achievements. Theodore Hancock creates an effect, such that the viewer sees the gantries through a mist, perhaps intended to be the mist of time. Through this mist is an image of the Sun moving in a curve from the lower left of the paintings up and across to the right of the skyscape, emphasising the passage of time, and the ‘count downs’ of those long past endeavours. James Wyeth’s row of defunct launch gantries says it all. But, and it is an important but, these paintings remind us of the engineering triumphs of those times. Time moves us on; even exciting times pass; Predawn is history!

There is something of Turner’s The Fighting Téméraire 32 in these paintings. Turner in his painting has the stately old battleship being towed to the breakers yard by a steam tug; the old leaving room for the new, steam replacing sail. There is a connecting nostalgic theme to these works, but sometimes nostalgia is no bad thing. To be able to express nostalgia in vivid pictorial terms requires something special occurring between artist and subject and that special something is, as we noted earlier, inspiration.

It is easier to understand the inspiration of a beautiful bridge structure, the strength and power of a locomotive and the grace and lines of a ship or an aircraft, but what about the largely hidden engineering that drives this age of information technology? One computer looks much like another, there is not much that is aesthetic about the externals! A room full of computer assemblers or operators doesn’t seem too exciting, but seen through the eyes of an artist, it may be just as exciting as the team of navvies cutting through a hillside was for John Cooke Bourne, or the men pouring molten metal in a foundry was for Edna Lumb. Whereas sweating muscles in a foundry or railway cutting convey powerfully the processes involved, a clean computer room does not evince the same clarity of purpose, consequently the prevalent view was, and for some continues to be, that the age of IT held little or no inspiration for the artist. Thirty years or so ago, almost unnoticed in the art world, a brilliant mural by Theodore Hancock proved that view erroneous. His Man and Computers33 drew together the close relationship between the human and those, then new, machines in a web-like intimacy of carbon-based neurones and silicon-based chips. As the artist put it, ‘there is a real partnership between man and computer’. Hancock’s mural, as has Bourne’s Voyager painting, captured the important essence of the relationship between us and our engineering endeavours.

The emergence of industrialisation and of engineering as a profession paralleled that of the emergence of the ‘new’ artist, no longer content to be tied to portraying their worthy sponsors or pandering to the market for religious, allegorical and bucolic subjects. We owe much to those artists for recording our industrial and engineering heritage. They were inspired to put engineering up as the ‘subject of’, not a ‘subject in’ art and then proceeded to embrace and portray the essence of the engineering process.

* On 20 August 2002, the 25th anniversary of the launch of the two Voyager space craft, NASA announced that both probes were still sending signals back to Earth.


Paintings mentioned:

  1. Voyager, J.L. Bourne (private collection).
  2. The Orthopaedic Ward, Edna Lumb (Science Museum, London).
  3. Bean’s Foundry, Tipton, Edna Lumb (private collection).
  4. Coalbrookdale by Night, Jacques de Loutherbourg (Science Museum, London).
  5. Drawing, John Cooke Bourne (National Railway Museum, York).
  6. Rain, Steam, Speed, J.M.W. Turner (National Gallery, London).
  7. Lordship Lane Station, Upper Norwood, Camille Pissarro (Courtauld Institute Galleries, London).
  8. La Gare Saint-Lazare, Claude Monet (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
  9. Water-garden at Giverny, Claude Monet (The Louvre, Paris).
  10. The Thames near Walton Bridges, J.M.W. Turner (Tate Britain, London).
  11. Westminster Bridge, Claude Monet (private collection).
  12. The Bridge at Argenteuil, Claude Monet (The Louvre, Paris).
  13. Les Ponts de Fer, Emile Bernard (Museum of Modern Art, New York).
  14. Le Pont d’Asnieres, Paul Signac (private collection).
  15. L’Estaque: Viaduct and Houses, George Braque (private collection).
  16. Bridges in Paris, Albert Gleizes (Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna).
  17. Landscape, Albert Gleizes (Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio).
  18. Brooklyn Bridge, Albert Gleizes (whereabouts unknown to author).
  19. The Opening of the Saltash Bridge, Thomas Valentine Robins (National Railway Museum, York).
  20. The Crystal Palace, Charlotte, Viscountess Canning (Harewood House).
  21. Le ‘Crystal Palace’, Camille Pissarro (The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago).
  22. Illumination of the Eiffel Tower, George Garen (Musée d’Orsay, Paris).
  23. The Eiffel Tower, George Seurat (The Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco).
  24. The Eiffel Tower Framed Between Curtains, Robert Delaunay (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein- Westfalen, Dusseldorf ).
  25. Champ de Mars, Red Eiffel Tower, Robert Delaunay (The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago).
  26. East Side Skyline, Theodore Hancock (private collection).
  27. Transfer Structures, Ben Johnson (Ove Arup Partnership).
  28. Predawn, Peter Hurd (NASA).
  29. Pad 37, Theodore Hancock (private collection).
  30. Count Down to a Mars Mariner Launching, Theodore Hancock (private collection).
  31. View down Gantry Row, James Wyeth (NASA).
  32. The Fighting Téméraire, J.M.W. Turner (National Gallery, London).
  33. Man and Computers, Theodore Hancock (private collection).

Arthur Bourne

Arthur Bourne is a Director of Orbic Limited. A writer, with a background in both the sciences and the arts, he is President Emeritus of the European Union of Science Journalists’ Associations and a Life Member of the Association of British Science Writers. He has scripted and designed industrial and scientific exhibitions, and produced and advised on video and television programmes. He is an ‘occasional’ sculptor in which he expresses his fascination for mathematics, physics and engineering.

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