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Coming from afar (Or: watching trains go by)

Earlier, I wrote about the meanings of distance for travellers on the early railways. But what did distance mean for those who observed the new engines on wheels from the outside, as they came thundering past?

An important painting from the 1880s addresses precisely this question. ‘Il vient de loin’ – he/it comes from afar – by Dutch impressionist Paul Joseph Constantin Gabriël has at least three things to say about distance.

P.J.C. Gabriël, ‘Il vient de loin’, Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo, the Netherlands, no. KM 100.143.

1)

Most obviously, this painting problematizes progress. Many visual and literary artworks of the nineteenth century set up a dichotomy between tradition and progress, between nature and technology, between a supposedly static country-side and a dynamic industrial sector. Some artists were enthusiastic about technological developments, others critical, a third group ambiguous.

Gabriël, too, clearly referred to these contemporary concerns in his work. Not for nothing, Gabriël’s painting is reminiscent of J.M.W. Turner’s famous ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’, which like many works of its time emphasised both the beauty and the threat of steam technology.

Take even just Gabriël’s title. It makes sense to read this from the perspective of the angler resting against the gate in this Dutch polder landscape: representing the local and the traditional, the angler sees the train ‘coming from afar’. Indeed, the technology of steam locomotion arrived in continental Europe from across the sea: developed in Britain, steam trains may initially have been considered an exotic technology in the rest of Europe. The steam engines used on the early Dutch railways even continued to be imported from Britain for quite some time, for lack of a local industry.

Of course, ‘afar’ may refer to the individual train in the picture, too. The angler looks like he has just come sauntering into the scene from a nearby farmstead. Within his frame of reference, it might be argued, the train has already travelled a lot of track before entering into view – although we are probably talking about a few tens or hundreds of kilometres at most. Trains cross vast distances; farmers and fisher-people stay put, the painting seems to say.

In all these cases, the new technology can be read as an alien presence in this landscape, and if this was indeed the predominant perception in the 1880s, we should not be too surprised if the railways occasionally met with a hostile reception.

J.M.W. Turner, ‘Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway’, National Gallery UK, no. NG538. Available on Wikimedia Commons.

2)

What makes this painting interesting, however, is its ambiguity: who exactly is coming from afar? Rather than the train, the title could refer to the angler.

This interpretation makes a lot of sense if we follow the painter’s cue to look at the angler: an Everyman. It is he who comes from afar. That is: humankind has got far: from humbly hunting for food, through shaping the land to make it suitable for farming, to the modern industrial economy. This second interpretation sits equally comfortably with prevalent nineteenth-century views. And so, when looking at the steam engine, the angler is really looking at his own achievements, perhaps pondering whether they please him.

3)

But possibly the most interesting view this painting offers on distances has little to do with nineteenth-century debates. Instead, it has everything to do with a sensation that cannot have been unique to the nineteenth century.

We see: a polder landscape. A canal in the middle. On the right: anglers, some ducks. On the left: a telegraph line, the approaching train still in the distance. And two thirds of the painting: sky. A single vanishing point, a simple composition.

What’s more, the entire picture is permeated by the single element of water. The sky is filled with clouds, the air with steam; the land is bisected by a canal and the earth saturated with groundwater. The anglers find their food in the water; the travellers power their movement with the help of water turned into steam. This is a thoroughly wet scene, a scene with much less contrast or conflict than for instance Turner’s ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’.

And so, everything about this balanced picture speaks quiet. (Apart perhaps from the already restlessly vertical telegraph poles.)

Yet we know the train is coming. Its approaching cloud of steam seems to progressively envelop the land. Not just that, but it moves from the central vanishing point to the front of the scene. It gets all the attention, that of the angler as well as ours.

It will enter the landscape and for a brief moment be at its very foreground, dominating the scene with its noise and its steam, its hard wheels on the track, its smells and its black body towering on the embankment; for a few seconds the angler resting against the gate will hear or see nothing but the train… and then it’ll be gone.

It is this ephemerality, the fleeting quality of this sensation of a train passing by, that Gabriël pictures. He pictures not just the brief moment of the train’s overwhelming presence, but also its absence on either side of that moment.

‘Coming from afar’ then means: being there for an instance only, and soon belonging to another place again.

It is a sensation we know all too well, and one that overlaps with some of the sensations had by people on a train.

And so, in the same decade of 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson published his memorable ‘From a Railway Carriage’:

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

Robert Louis Stevenson in 1887. Wikimedia Commons.

Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!

 

This post grew from my article ‘Trains, Bodies, Landscapes: Experiencing Distance in the Long Nineteenth Century’, published in The Journal of Transport History (2019).

It was also published on the website of the Hakluyt Society.

3

How do you know how far you’ve travelled?

‘It’s a small world’ – nay, a positively ‘shrinking’ one. How often do you not hear these words used in order to praise the newest communication and transport technologies? Or, equally, to condemn mass tourism?

(‘The world is getting too small. Nowadays, every Tom, Dick and Harry flies to the other end of the world as if it’s the shop around the corner.’ (People who fear that the world is shrinking typically speak from an economically comfortable position.))

The truism can be found in sales and politics, journalism and academic research alike: since we no longer have to walk in order to get from A to B, or sit on a horse, or even drive a carriage, our bodies no longer feel how great a distance we are covering. Trains and planes have annihilated space. Our journeys have become ‘disembodied’.

What is more, we have stopped noticing the landscape we are travelling through, because we stow ourselves away in cabins and compartments that isolate us from the trees and the rocks and the waves that surround us. We therefore no longer register the journeys we are making: the only things left now are departure and arrival.

Modern technology captured in a Blue-Riband-winning ocean liner: RMS Etruria, built in 1884, as shown on a postcard. Bavinck would have sailed on a roughly similar ship. Wikimedia Commons.

Economically speaking this is true: the cost of carrying people across the globe has been on the decrease for centuries, as ships and roads and other transport technologies have become ever more efficient.

But is it equally true when we consider how we feel about distances? Do we no longer notice that Cape Town is further from Budapest than it is from Kinshasa, simply because we might take a plane (rather than walk) to go to either place? And does the ocean literally feel narrower now than it did a hundred years ago, because we have boats that take us across faster?

With this question in mind, my work as an historian led me to scrutinise dozens of historical travel narratives and the titles of many more. In the end, I had to conclude that at least European experiences have not in fact changed so much.

However up-to-date and speedy their mode of transport, people could not help keeping a physical sense of distance.

There were many factors which contributed to this: the work that went into every step of the journey, and its many discomforts, even if just that of sitting still for any length of time; complicated communications with the home-front; cultural differences between place of departure and arrival…

This photo of RMS Etruria already gives a better impression of the lonely situation of ships like these when under sail or steam. Before 1910. Wikipedia.

Another major factor was the landscape. A nice example is offered by Herman Bavinck, a Dutchman who in 1892 made a three-month journey to America. Over the course of the preceding century, sailing times from Europe to North America had been vastly reduced, from several weeks at the start of the century to just 130 hours in Bavinck’s days. 130 Hours were therefore comparatively quick in the eyes of his contemporaries, and his journey would also have been relatively comfortable. We are talking the time of the Titanic, and on his own ship, Bavinck would certainly not have travelled third-class.

And yet, he writes that

130 hours [. . .] is quick to say, but one feels the length and the cost first, when one sees nothing but water — infinitely wide, everywhere — day after day, night after night’

For Bavinck, the transatlantic distance was vast, the voyage boring and America ‘far’ and ‘distant’. This is because what mattered to him was not the objective duration of his journey – a little over 5 days – but the insistent repetition of a single landscape type: water, and nothing but water.

A ‘wondrously large’ space: Niagara Falls used for its water power. Photo published in 1890. Wikimedia Commons.

Distances felt long to him within America as well, even though he only travelled in the area close to the Great Lakes and used all the most modern means such as steamers and railways. Again, this had to do with his relation to the landscape: he was impressed by the sheer size of America’s natural phenomena, such as its rivers and falls. He therefore found the country

wondrously large […] We do not understand its expanse.

Bavinck is just one example of the many travellers for whom their own bodies and the landscapes they travelled through continued to give them a pronounced sense of distance – or proximity – with no hard and fast relation to the ever shortening lengths of time it took to get somewhere.

This post is based on my article ‘Trains, Bodies, Landscapes: Experiencing Distance in the Long Nineteenth Century’, published in The Journal of Transport History (2019), which contains many more stories about distance in travel writing.

Quotes are from James Eglinton’s translation of Bavinck’s ‘My Journey to America’ which appeared in the journal Dutch Crossing, 41 no. 2 (2017).

1

The earliest photos: inside out

Yesterday, a generous friend gave me an enormous book: a big fat history of photography.

I had not anticipated that this already splendid book full of beautiful old photos, would also tell me a lot about that other interest I have: space.

One aspect of space that fascinates me, is the distinction between outside and inside spaces. Where exactly do we cross the threshold between being indoors and being out-of-doors? And where do we prefer to be?

Sometimes the distinction is clear. But this is far from always the case:

Tim Green, Kirkstall Abbey near Leeds (2016), CC-BY-2.0, on Wikimedia Commons.

Inside or outside?

Jürgen Sindermann, camp site Prerow on the Baltic Coast (1990), Deutsches Bundesarchiv, Allgemeiner Deutscher Nachrichtendienst, Zentralbild, Bild 183, via Wikimedia Commons.

Back to the history of photography. Very early photos, taken in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, seem to me to have frequently blurred the boundaries between inside and outside. This is visible in two types of photos discussed in the first chapter of my book.

1)  Most early photographic portraits follow the same pattern: the subject is seated or standing next to a table or column or such, against a simple architectural backdrop or curtain. All of this is placed – and this is key – on a nice, patterned carpet. In short, everything is done to suggest that the photo was taken in a comfortable drawing-room, or in someone’s study.

Portrait of Mary Ann Bartlett (1850 à 1860), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, DAG no. 1218.

However, not only were many pictures taken in professional studios rather than in the sitter’s home, and were those bits of furniture much too upmarket for some of them to even afford them. Many of such portraits were also taken in the open air. Especially amateur photographers often created their portraits out of doors. This could involve hauling quite a bit of furniture outside in order to create a miniature parlour. The amount of furniture is still modest on this example, but it shows clearly how such photos were made:

(Self-)portrait of Alexandrine Tinne in her own garden in The Hague (1860), Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands, Collectie 066 De Constant Rebecque, inventory no. 249 (public domain). Note the carpet. But also the saddle: Tinne was a famous explorer.

Photos such as these would later be cropped. Usually.

2)  A completely different genre was formed by cityscapes, an outdoor genre. Yet again, in early examples of this genre the boundaries between inside and outside were blurred. Out-of-door pictures were often taken while the photographer was standing indoors, working their camera through an opened window; or they were taken from the rooftop of the photographer’s house; or else, if the photographer did leave their front door, quite close to home.

They have that sense about them of a casual look out of the window, or of nipping out for a breath of fresh air on the doorstep.

Eduard Isaac Asser, view from his rooftop, Singel, Amsterdam (c. 1852), Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, RP-F-AB12278-A (public domain).

That this is how early photography operated had two causes, I read in my book. For in order to take photos, you need two things:

  1. your equipment: camera, tripod, plates, chemicals… In the early years, all this equipment was unwieldy and the process of making an exposure complex. It was best therefore not to venture too far from your studio;
  2. of course, in order to take a photo you also need light. And in the early years of photography, with less sensitive materials than now, you simply needed more of this, so the best place to go for all kinds of photos was outside.

It was therefore in the nature of early photography to merge working outdoors and indoors. The very technology itself, which demanded both intricate equipment and a lot of light, turned these artists into amphibious creatures, who brought the parlour into the garden and the city into the home.

 

The first chapter of the book: Saskia Asser, Mattie Boom, Hans Rooseboom, ‘Photography in the Netherlands in the Nineteenth Century: A New Art, A New Profession’, in Dutch Eyes: A Critical History of Photography in the Netherlands (Amsterdam: Waanders, 2007), 57-102.

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January reminder

It’s a chilly January day in the city. I’m walking near the high street. From a distance, I see a homeless person lying on the pavement, huddled away in their sleeping-bag.

As I get closer, I flinch. It’s not a person at all.

It is three grey bin bags, waiting to be collected.

This is what five years of living in a northern English city does to you. Your expectations make a U-turn for the worse, especially on days like this.

Yes, we learn that we have to keep our hopes up. Toughen up, look ahead, don’t despair. That’s our duty. As grown-ups. As citizens. As teachers, nurses, social workers…

But at the end of the day, that’s just public relations. Essential to our lives, to our living together, but not always true to our feelings. And not – dare I say it – not always the best course of action.

Once in a while, might I be permitted to accept the gloom? For if everything is shiny and hopeful, I may lose my powers of judgement.

I see this city today, and am reminded that it needs changing.

 

P.S. Will the reader forgive me for not including an attractive picture in this post?


This was written in January. That month, however, seemed to need something written in a different tone.

2

Why is a Delft vase like a zipper bag?

Europeans can have an uncanny sense of recognition when observing certain aspects of Chinese popular culture. I just had such a moment when, absent-minded, my eyes fell on a zipper bag I bought in China years ago:

Food bag, acquired in eastern China, taken home to western Europe, photographed by author.

Not only had I transported words such as ‘sweet’ and ‘breakfast’ back from China to Europe – this was weird enough, because these words mean completely different things in China where the bag was sold (in as far as English words in Latin script make any sense at all), than in Europe, the place where the words had come from and which I had now brought them back to.

But the bag also pictured a series of household items which, in this style and combination, seem designed to evoke a snug English cottage, or perhaps a Polish farmstead kitchen, a nice old-fashioned home in the Romanian country-side, or any other place sitting firmly on the European continent. The coffee-pots, the loaf of bread, the stew pot, the single-leafed apple: they are European images, or else images associated with European settler cultures – please correct me if I’m wrong. And these images have become part of a European nostalgia, a nostalgia for the perfect home, imagined perhaps to have existed in the late nineteenth or the early twentieth century, a home, one might daydream, where there would always be a mother, a grandmother, a sister at home to tend the flowers in the garden and put them in the old coffee-pot.

Yet as if such nostalgia isn’t unsettling (and delicious) enough, the European viewer is here also confronted with an outsider’s perspective on his or her private nostalgia. To the Asian producer of this bag, the existing, European nostalgia apparently made enough sense to use it for marketing purposes. Although the objects on the bag and the nostalgia attached to them probably have a different meaning to its Chinese users than to most Europeans (for one thing, bread in China tastes completely different from bread in Europe) – something must ‘click‘ for them.

And although a rooted European will never be able to gauge exactly what these images mean to someone raised within Chinese culture, the European user nevertheless senses that the images have changed in the process of cultural transfer: not just because they are now surrounded by Chinese characters, but because they have been reimagined by someone with a different cultural baggage. The coffee-pot, the loaf of bread, all so familiar to me, have undergone a process of estrangement, of alienation. They have left my kitchen, circled the globe, and come back to me with a twist – a twist that might feel uncanny, because I do not know what has happened to them.

However, if I were to go and live in China, the uncanny feeling would no doubt weaken: my alienation is only a lack of cultural knowledge.

And the feeling also becomes less strong if I take a look at our shared history. For many Europeans, China has the name of being a culture of imitation: Chinese factories, Chinese pop singers, Chinese fashion designers, they say, take ‘western’ ideas and reproduce them more cheaply. Of course this stereotype ignores a vast range of ideas, fashions, technologies and tastes that originate in China itself. But what’s more, it ignores Europe’s own history of imitation.

Painted pot and lid with Chinese figure in landscape, made in Delft (Holland) around 1750. Public domain; made availably by Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, object BK-NM-12400-114.

How will Chinese traders have felt when they first saw Delftware, which imitated Chinese porcelain including even representations of Chinese landscapes and Chinese people?

And what did the image on this vase mean to its first buyers – probably Dutch – in the mid-eighteenth century? It seems plausible that part of their satisfaction was the same as the Chinese owners of Chinese ceramics will have felt – admiration of the crafted pot, the painted surface, the landscape with the dotted bushes and the fashionable flaneur. The Delft buyers, however, will have experienced something extra: as a bonus, they were in touch with an exotic culture, one that was all the rage across the globe.

Although a plastic food bag is no dainty vase, I can imagine that the coffee-pot and the white loaf, too, bring a tiny element – not too much, because European-American images are more accessible to today’s Chinese than Chinese art was to early modern Europeans – a tiny element of the exotic into the Chinese kitchen. And back into mine.

Box the bag came in, photographed by author.

0

Dirt or development?

British air is too dirty, the newspapers reported this week.

But who decides what is dirty? As a historian, I see norms of cleanliness shift over the centuries. What is more, I see some of the roots of current norms going back to the nineteenth century or beyond.

According to anthropologist Mary Douglas, dirt is ‘matter out of place’.

In the case of British air, that matter is nitrogen dioxide. And it is out of place because it should not leave car exhausts in such great quantities as it does, building up in our cities. At least, that is the opinion of the European Commissioner for the Environment, who is about to sue Britain for breaching EU legislation. Environmental NGOs like Client Earth agree. They even have the UK Supreme Court on their side.

Yet local and national governments are failing to implement the legislation. Clearly, their norms and priorities differ from those who want to see British cities cleaned up immediately.

Charles Marville, Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel, mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

Picturesque or dirty? Charles Marville photographed the Parisian rue des Francs-bourgeois-Saint-Marcel in the course of Haussmann’s improvement project of the mid-19th-century. Digital version from Paris Secret et Insolite

In my work, I find similar conflicts over what matter is ‘out of place’. Take the case of early-nineteenth-century Dutch travellers. The place where they lived contained hardly any steam engines as yet, and little industry that might blow out polluting particles, when compared to Belgium or Britain in the same period. The Dutch economy ran largely on cows and sailing ships: two things which, although involving a certain amount of smelliness, did not usually concentrate in the streets of their cities.

So when Dutch travellers visited foreign towns, they were not so concerned with smoking chimneys. What they found dirty instead were unpaved roads, dust and mud. Indoors, matters were even worse as they encountered stuffy rooms which occupants kept the windows shut while smoking pipes or even keeping animals in the same space. Where other people felt snug and homy, these travellers felt sick.

On a typical stroll through an Italian city, they complained about streets being ‘[n]arrow, close, irregular, steep and crooked […] The heat […] was unbearable […] The smell, fuming towards me from the black, dirty, six-story high houses, I found insufferable [and I found] grimy rags [hung out] to dry’.

All in all, these travellers associated dirt with a lack of civilisation. In the undeveloped state in which much of Europe remained, according to these Netherlanders, matter had not yet found its way to the right places. Medieval alleys had not yet been straightened out, gutters not been cleared, ventilation shafts in houses not yet constructed. Nothing moved, everything was stuck.

This nineteenth-century ideal of movement and progress is oddly reminiscent of the behaviour of many governments today. Still thinking in eighteenth- or nineteenth-century terms, they like to see things move. They focus narrowly on economic growth, but do not invest in infrastructures that would make this growth a (literally) healthy one.

Of course, this has also much to do with the historical growth of an energy and transport sector that depends heavily on internal-combustion engines. This sector, and those parts of western governments that rely on it financially, have become entrenched: they resist the investments necessary for a shift towards different forms of energy storage (such as water reservoirs) and more efficient forms of releasing this energy (such as public rail transport).

Their public expressions of what is dirty and what is not have by now become pretty old-fashioned. If we follow their norms, the nitrogen dioxide in our streets is not matter out of place at all. It is precisely where it should be, and the sign of a roaring economy.

This text was published earlier on University of Sheffield’s History Matters, in slightly altered form.

5

The Joy of Chinese Painting?

Have a look at these two types of paintings:

‘Bright Autumn Trees’ by the American TV personality Bob Ross (1942-1995), or any other of his landscape paintings (please click on the link, because I cannot reproduce the image);

and, to give just one example, this landscape by Fan Kuan, a painter living under the Song dynasty (flourished 990–1020):

Fan Kuan, 'Sitting Alone by a Stream' (via Wikimedia Commons)

Fan Kuan, ‘Sitting Alone by a Stream’, now in the National Palace Museum in Taipei (via Wikimedia Commons)

How do you appreciate the two?

On me, in any case, Fan’s painting made a much bigger impression.

Now, I know very little about Chinese painting, but I think that I can safely say that both Bob Ross and Classic Chinese landscape painters worked in a circumscribed tradition, within genre rules that made each work clearly recognisable as a particular kind of landscape. I may offend people were I to call their works cliches, but both painters, I think, wielded stock elements, both specialised in particular painting techniques and both were masters in what they were doing.

Then why do I admire Chinese landscape paintings such as Fan’s so much more than Ross’s? Is it simply the aura of exoticism that for me, as a European spectator, surrounds Chinese art? Or the aura of a venerable age (Fan’s painting is a thousand years older than Ross’s)? Or is perhaps something even more unfair going on?

Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, wrote how people derive status from showing off their cultural knowledge – or, to be more precise, from internalising high-status aesthetic taste. In other words, in order to ‘make it’ you have to find beautiful what others who have already made it also find beautiful. If this analysis is true for my feelings about the two paintings above, that means that in the end, I judge Fan’s work to be ‘art’ and Ross’s work to be ‘kitsch’ just because this is the taste expected from me.

Or is it really something inside the picture that distinguishes Fan from Ross? Is his painting more skilled, more profound, more original? Who can help me?