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Which Grade I Listed Bridge is Featured in J M W Turner's Painting 'Rain, Steam and Speed'?

Maidenhead Railway Bridge (MLN12327)

Listed: 1985, upgraded 2012
Grade: I
NHLE entry: Listing details for Maidenhead Railway Bridge

Black and white photo of Maidenhead Bridge taken in 1880.
1880 photo of Maidenhead Bridge showing graceful arches of Brunel's design from the riverbank.

Dubbed 'God's Wonderful Railway' by admirers, the Great Western Railway (GWR) has been enjoyed by millions of commuters and holiday-makers crossing England since the 1830s. In recognition of the engineering genius of the railway's creator Isambard Kingdom Brunel (and the GWR's pioneering contribution to the transport network during the Industrial Revolution) certain GWR bridges, tunnels, viaducts and station buildings have been listed.

Central to Brunel's designs was the Maidenhead Railway Bridge that, since 1839, has carried trains across the Thames where it acts as a border between Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. Upgraded to Grade I in 2012, the bridge is believed to have the longest and flattest brick arches ever built and embodies Brunel's highly innovative and detailed architectural vision.

Atmospheric beauty and industrialisation

Unsurprisingly, the bridge was also heralded as a marvel by contemporary observers. Most significantly, the artist J M W Turner captured a locomotive travelling across it in his atmospheric oil painting 'Rain, Steam and Speed' of 1844. Now hanging in the National Gallery, it exudes atmospheric beauty, as well as offering viewers a glimpse of the impact that railways had on Victorian England.

In 1835, an Act of Parliament authorised the construction of a line from London to Bristol, which, when completed in 1841, measured 118 miles. The Act came at a vital stage in the development of the national transport system, as Bristol fought to maintain its status as England's second port against increasing competition from Liverpool.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The engineering of the route was entrusted to Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), who was already known for his engineering projects in Bristol. He took sole responsibility for every aspect of the design, from surveying the line to deciding the detailing of buildings and other structures. He sought to achieve as level a route as possible, and persuaded the GWR directors to adopt a broad gauge of 7ft ¼in rather than the standard (4ft 8½in) gauge in use on other lines.

The Maidenhead Railway Bridge, built of fine red brick, gritstone and thick York stone, has a symmetrical viaduct composition and classical dressings. Two identical approach abutments and four semi-circular flood arches on each bank flank two wide semi-elliptical arches across the river. The construction of the arches was achieved through Brunel's daring progressions in calculus, pushing the techniques of arch design far beyond their previous limits.

Maidenhead Bridge viewed from the riverbank.
Maidenhead Bridge from the riverbank.

'Rain, Steam and Speed'

Because of the mature vegetation on both banks, the bridge isn't visible in the wider landscape except from certain points. These include the River Thames, its banks, and the 18th-century Grade I-listed Maidenhead Road Bridge to the north. Today, the two bridges form a celebrated river scene.

Yet during the railway bridge's construction in the mid-19th century, railways were considered appropriate subjects for representation only in 'popular' art forms, such as engravings or cartoons. J M W Turner's decision to paint the bridge in 1844 was as pioneering as its subject, an indication of the deep-rooted impression that industrialisation was making on all aspects of culture during the period.

Turner depicts the bridge as a train crosses it through an early morning rainstorm - as the locomotive bursts into bright light, its surroundings are lost in dramatic steamy swirls. From a critical point of view, this battle of wind, rain and light raging around the train possibly alludes to the duel response of awe and fear that Victorian railway expansion inspired in those living in areas irrevocably altered by the Industrial Revolution.

The testament of time

By the 1870s, the growth of rail traffic meant that the GWR line had to be widened from two to four tracks. However, the alterations were exceptionally sympathetic to the original form, and there have been no significant changes to the bridge since. The arches have remained true, despite supporting dozens of modern trains every day that weigh several hundred tons and travel at 100mph. This fact, alongside Turner's depiction and the bridge's Grade I listing, is a true testament to the greatness of Brunel's pioneering designs.

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