'Historic' drawing of first passenger railway dismissed as a fake

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A drawing of the first passenger railway, supposedly dating from 1809 and attributed to the great English caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson, has been dismissed as a clumsy forgery.

The picture, bequeathed to the Science Museum in London, has for decades been hailed as showing one of the defining moments in transport history. But John Liffen, a curator at the museum, believes the work is one of three fakes produced in about 1905. It shows the earliest passenger railway – a "steam circus" erected in 1808 near the site of the present-day Euston station by the Cornish engineer Richard Trevithick.

Among the drawing's more glaring inconsistencies, Mr Liffen argues, is a church steeple that was not built until 1826 and rows of houses which were erected on fields in the late 19th century. The paper used for the drawing also includes traces of woodpulp – which was not used until much later than 1809.

Mr Liffen believes the "historic" work is wrongly credited to Rowlandson, who died in 1827. His drawings and satirical cartoons experienced a renaissance in the early 1900s, which led to a surge in the number of forgeries in circulation. "Rowlandson's work was growing quite popular by the 1920s and there were forgeries being introduced on to the market," said Mr Liffen. "Some think there was a factory for producing Rowlandson works around this period. [The drawing] was produced at a time when there was money to be made from forgeries. When I looked at it, it just didn't smell right to me."

The only reliable images of Trevithick's railway were likely to have been drawn by W J Welch in the 1870s, Mr Liffen added.