“…new configurations of money, time, and space.”*


*From: Marshall, Nancy Rose. “On William Powell Frith’s Railway Station, April 1862.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net:

“…The painting, produced on commission by a dealer willing to take a gamble on his profits, became a leap of capitalist faith. At the very center of the composition, in fact, is an outstretched palm of a cabbie demanding money, acknowledging the importance of financial exchange as a generator of the picture. And not surprisingly, in the background to the right, Louis Victor Flatow (variant spelling Flatou) himself is portrayed in the painting having a discussion with the engineer; the dealer, together with the “driver”—Frith—makes the “train”—the artistic production—run. According to Frith’s daughter, Flatow said he had actually wanted to be the “hengine driver” because “after all, it’s my money will make the pictur’ go” (Panton 119)…

…Ironically, although the one-picture exhibition both fed upon and helped invent the notion of the individual genius, The Railway Station involved many producers. W. Scott Morton contributed to the work by painting the architectural details of Paddington Station (Chapel 90). An article in Photographic News announced that Frith also relied on photographs, as another nod to modern technology: “Mr. Samuel Fry [is] engaged in taking a series of negatives 25 x 18 inches and 10 x 8 inches of the interior of Great Western Station, engine, carriage, &c., for Mr Frith, as aids to the production of his great painting Life at a Railway Station. Such is the value of the photograph in aiding the artist’s work, that he wonders now how he ever did without them!” (Photographic News 204). The Railway Station, then, was a collaborative production…

Viewing the picture was also accompanied by reading a pamphlet written by playwright and art critic Tom Taylor, who seems to have consulted directly with Frith himself. This description helped visitors to Flatow’s gallery decipher the painting’s many scenes taking place on the platform of the Great Western Railway. On the far right of the work is the arrest of a criminal. Next to this incident is a wedding party in which newlyweds take leave of bridesmaids and family. To the left is a foreign couple confused by the vehement solicitations of a hansom cab driver seeking a higher tip. And in the center a family sends its boys to school. An episode like the one depicted here may very well have occurred in the artist’s own life, as in 1861 his two eldest sons, who modeled for the picture, William Powell and Charles George, were schoolboys in Somerset, the terminal for which was Paddington Station (1861 Census). Behind this family appears a much more harassed family group in a rush…

…In his pamphlet, Taylor reminded readers of the importance of railroads’ influence in this regard by citing William Wordsworth’s belief that railroads suggested “the conquest of space”. As scholars have noted, train travel produced a radical reorganization in concepts of space and time (Schivelbusch 44). Altering routes, shortening travel times and bringing formerly remote communities in contact with cities—and with London in particular—the railway remapped the world. Space itself shrank due to new estimations of how long it took to traverse, resulting in the proliferation of leisure travel such as that enjoyed by the fisherman in The Railway Station. Furthermore, scattered throughout the crowd are newsboys hawking the Daily Telegraph, reminding us that the world is smaller too as a consequence of the modern invention of both the telegraph and the newspaper.

Time is also a major theme in Frith’s picture, in which, as noted, various groups and vignettes are all unified by the shared goal of punctually boarding the train. Trains also forever changed British consciousness by standardizing times nationwide through the imposition of schedules…

Frith portrays plainclothes detectives, visible only at the moment they step forward to act in a punitive fashion. Modeled on the real figures of James Brett and Michael Haydon, the detectives demonstrate their renowned, finely-honed faculties for identifying and apprehending the dangerous elements of society. The Illustrated London Newsidentified Haydon as the individual holding the handcuffs and Brett as the man with the sealed warrant, adding that this pair had “discovered the gold-dust robbery, brought Hughes from Australia, traced Kiss all over the continent to Venice, and discovered the Guinness-Hill lost child of fortune”.

…Directly next to the vignette of the arrest of the criminal is a happy bride in yellow taking leave of her bridesmaids to start her new life with her husband. Such an arrangement was perceived and appreciated by Frith’s audience: “So it is that the darkest shadows and brightest lights of life come together; that joy is intensified by sorrow, and sorrow deepened by joy, as the painter uses his darks and lights to relieve each other” (Taylor 9)…

As Peter Brooks has observed in The Melodramatic Imagination, “cops and robbers fiction” and similar genres are forms of realism that insist that reality can be exciting rather than mundane. He posits that the psychological function of melodrama is to compel the viewer to experience a sense of wholeness in response to the simpler emotions of the depicted characters. According to Brooks,

melodrama comes into being in a world where the traditional imperatives of truth and ethics have been violently thrown into question, yet where the promulgation of truth and ethics, their instauration as a way of life, is of immediate, daily, political concern. . . . We may legitimately claim that melodrama becomes the principal mode for uncovering, demonstrating, and making operative the essential moral universe in a post-sacred era. 

…In the center of the painting, Frith contrasted Englishness and generic “foreignness,” a disparity noticed by reviewers. “In immediate conjunction with [Frith’s own family] we have a coarse and darkly complexioned foreigner, deeply tinged, as it would appear, with African blood, but richly bedizened in jewelry and furs,” commented the Observer. The reference to “African blood” was an extreme way of suggesting the difference of the man, and of underscoring that he was as unlike the whiteness of Frith’s pure English family as possible (the foreigner was variously interpreted as Italian, South American Spanish, French, and German) (Taylor 13; The Critic 397; Daily News 2). As another reviewer claimed, Frith “impersonates paterfamilias capitally with his fair, ruddy, Saxon face, buttoning up his coat and his feelings at parting with his two elder boys . . . Materfamilias [is] perfect as such in her motherly comeliness.” Pater and mater are equated with fairness, beauty, and emotional restraint. As the viewer realizes, not only is the bearded man most likely being cheated by the canny British cabdriver, he is also henpecked, incapable even of sustaining the appropriate power relations between a man and his wife. Taylor contrasted the “sturdy cabman” of “British bull-doggedness” with the poor foreigner who “has no knowledge nor will of his own,” claiming that “the fair-haired Signora is the head of the family to all intents and purposes”. Unlike the dubious foreigner and his problematic marriage with a dominating shrew, or the criminal whose horrified wife witnesses his arrest from the door of the railway carriage, the bourgeois gentleman at the center of the canvas is the proper pater. Further emphasizing the harmony in his own central group, Frith contrasts it with the badly organized, vulgar family to the left, in which a florid mother irritably tows along her children while giving nervous directions about her luggage. The criminal, as well, was interpreted as not entirely white: “In the face of the detected swindler, whose expression is the only discordant part of the picture, we perceive with some satisfaction that the man is of a different race from our own. There is a strong African tinge about his physiognomy” (Saturday Review 622). Such juxtapositions reinforced the central position and superiority of the white British middle-class family, defining the members of such a family in contrast with the foreign, dark-skinned, humorous, disempowered, or disorderly.

In another gambit that both instructed people in how to see and relied on their preconceptions, Frith included such physiognomical stereotypes as the thug, recognizable by his low forehead and brutish face, standing behind the bridal grouping with his cane to his mouth. In the brochure for the picture, Taylor described his “low brow, flattened nose and gapped teeth” and drew attention to his “seal-skin cap and tweed coat,” noting that he was probably a “costermonger, choice fruit of Westminster slums” and possibly a burglar as well, since “low excess has written and stamped the character in every line of his face” (Taylor 12-13). Other reviewers drew on this same combination of dress and appearance to recognize the repulsive nature of this figure (Daily News 2; Illustrated London News 457). As suggested by the ease with which the character was categorized, pre-existing notions of what moral and immoral human beings looked like allowed the artist to communicate with his viewers at the same time he consolidated certain stereotypes through repetition of them…”

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