Reaktion, £16.95

Railway, By George Revill

 

The oddly singular title is explained when you learn the book is the latest addition to a series called Objekt, which "explores a range of types… that have captured the imagination of modernist designers, makers and theorists". Unlike other titles in the series – Dam, Factory, School, Factory, Chair – Railway has inspired wide affection and a host of cultural responses.

Revill's exploration of the art of the train is impressive in scope. His survey of rail poetry includes Thomas's bucolic Adlestrop, Betjeman's suburbia, Larkin's "Whitsun" journey and Auden's "Night Mail", whose final line ("For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?") presages today's mania for mobiles. Along with rail's greatest painters Turner, Monet and Pissaro, Revill adds a lovely Eric Ravilious landscape framed by the window of a Third Class carriage and George Inness's 1855 panorama of a train cheerily chuffing through the Lackawanna Valley in Pennsylvania.

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Touching on more directly related railway aesthetics, Revill singles out the majestic stations of Helsinki and Antwerp. He also features the art deco masterpiece of Cincinnati Union railway station and the Romanesque castle of St Louis, Missouri (once the largest station in the world), both now successfully converted to new roles like the Gare d'Orsay in Paris.

Despite their inclusion in the Objekt series, railways do not emerge as a hotbed of modernist design, aside from Harry Beck's London Tube map based on electrical circuit diagrams and Raymond Loewy's streamlined locos that astounded Thirties America and remain the epitome of modernity.

Written in slightly academic prose, Revill's wide-ranging account is freighted with interest and reaches an optimistic, balanced conclusion, though enthusiasm occasionally derails meaning: "Railways seem to have a fortunate knack of embodying the apparent separation of humans and nature while providing a route to their psychic and cultural resolution."

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