Courses that may find source useful: Changing Britain
John Hume analyses two paintings, one which provides a contemporary view of the Clyde and hints at the industries that helped Glasgow flourish, and another which displays a steam pumping engine. In great detail he explains the features of each portrait providing an in-depth view of their content.
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What a pleasure it is to be here, and speak about these two images, both of which have become very dear to me: one of them I’ve known, in black and white, for many years, the one of the Clyde from Clydebrae; the other one was new to me when the exhibition was put on, I hadn’t come across it before. I think it’s an extremely interesting image for reasons I will explain.
If I can speak first of all about the one I’m most familiar with, that is the Clyde from Clydebrae. This is a picture, which as a work of art in a conventional sense is not really very important, but as a piece of topographical art it is of the very highest importance, and it always seems to me that sometimes we overvalue some works of art which are representational because they’re representational, instead of appreciating that they have a particular value of their own. The reason this image is so important is that it shows the Clyde in 1843 at a pivotal point in its history. It was making the transition from being a river which was essentially a river through open countryside to being a river which was going to be a great artery of trade and also a centre for shipbuilding and ship repair. The artist has very deliberately tried to introduce a number of features which are important to understanding the river in the 1840s and indeed he may have been commissioned to paint this picture because of what was happening in the next few years. I don’t know who commissioned the picture – I don’t think anyone does know – but it certainly it is an image which for many people within five or ten years would have found historical. And also very moving, because it’s a very loving picture, the man who has painted this picture really, really liked this landscape, there can be no doubts about that, there is a quality of tenderness about it, and tenderness about the details in it, which are really quite remarkable and indeed unusual among topographical paintings of that period, where there was a tendency either to be very literal and somewhat clumsy in expression, or to be arty like some of the English landscape painters of the period and of earlier periods in the eighteenth and indeed late seventeenth centuries.
What this picture shows is, as described in one of the subtitles for this picture, the bend in the river. You can see a very prominent bend in the River Clyde, going left to right, and then right again. This bend was very soon going to be straightened out, by cutting away the bank on the upper part of the left hand part of the river shown here, and filling in parts on the other side of the river to give you a much straighter channel and indeed a broader channel. Primarily for access to the quays of the upper Clyde which were the focus for trade at that time. And if we look in the distance we can see the masts of ships. There are two lots of ships there: there are two ships which are on a shipyard, the Stobcross slip-dock, one of which is a sailing ship and the other a steam ship, you can see the full hulls. And to the right of that you can see, quite dimly, a group of masts in the far distance, and these are masts of ships and the quays right up at the Broomielaw, right up in the centre of Glasgow where most of the trade of the city was undertaken at this stage. At about the time the straightening of the river was undertaken there was plans to build a new dock on the fields on the left hand side of the bend, and that would become Queen’s dock. But for a variety of reasons this was not build in the 1840s as originally intended, it wasn’t built until the 1870s, by that time the whole area had been completely transformed in appearance.
Other background features which I think are of very great interest are on the left. The road that you can see the vehicle on it, the horse drawn vehicle on it, this road was built as early as 1734 to link the centre of Glasgow with the Kelvin and Partick because there was, at that time, a building built for the rolling of iron into sheets, and then the splitting of these sheets into narrow strips for the making of nails. This was a plant that belonged to the Smithfield Company, an iron working company, which had its main works in the centre of Glasgow, just next to the Broomielaw, and this road was built to take vehicles from one to the other. The descendant of this road, Whitehouse Road, is now part of the Expressway, although on a different alignment.
The slip-dock, which I mentioned earlier, was important because it was the first shipbuilding dock on the River Clyde, on the Upper Clyde, and dated from 1818, built by Alasdair Barclay. They built and repaired ships there, until Queen’s dock was constructed in 1870s, or more properly Stobcross Quay was constructed at that time.
In the foreground we can see figures and animals symbolic of the use of that part of the Clyde at that time. It was very rural, it was used for recreation, it was used for grazing of cattle, there was a pump you can see for delivering water. Indeed this was the East end of Govan, the village of Meikle Govan, which became Govan. More or less on this spot the graving docks were built from the 1860s, which are still present and derelict just next to the Science Centre. Between the river and this stretch of green ground there is a walkway, and you can see people walking on it. This was a towpath, it was built in order that horses could pull ships up and down the river to get up to the centre of Glasgow. It was built in the early part of the nineteenth century: within a very few years it had been supplanted by the use of steam tugs, and the furthest away of the vessels you can see on the river is in fact a sailing ship being pulled by a steam tug. If you look carefully you can see the funnel of the tug beyond the ship and this would have been a seagoing ship, it might have been going as far afield as North America, it might have been going to Ireland; it was a trading vessel. The other small sailing ship is what would be called a ‘smack’, and it’s the kind of ship that would have been used to connect Glasgow with the Lower Clyde or the islands, really [it was] the forerunner of the ‘puffers’ which became so familiar in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century.
I’ve left to last the steamboat, the steamboat which is the biggest thing in the picture, as a feature. A very, very typical Clyde steamer of the 1840s, the kind of thing that would take you down to Dunoon, or up to the Holy Loch, or as far as Inverarie, carrying passengers and goods, goods for the shops in these places, the necessities of life. There were many steamers by that time, plying on the river, and this is one of them. And then last of all, in the foreground, in front of the paddle steamer, there is a coxed-four, a recreational rowing boat. People who are apparently dressed in their best clothes, the boat is nice and painted up, and this represents a strand of recreation on the river which still continues now above the Weir and Glasgow Green. Altogether a very, very remarkable picture. One more thing – and that is the trees on the right hand side, the right bank of the river as we look at it here. Behind these trees were a whole series of villas, of big houses in their own grounds, which were built by Glasgow merchants as places where they could get away from the grime and smells of the city centre, they could go and cultivate their gardens. But within a very short space of time there was a shipyard built there, the Clydebank shipyard, and then later on Prince’s dock was built on this site. We must be very, very grateful to whoever commissioned this picture and to the artist that drew it because it gives us an insight into what that part of the Clyde and Glasgow was like 170 years ago.
The other picture is new to me, I hadn’t come across it before the exhibition and what is extremely interesting about it, is not that it is a particularly accomplished work of art – it isn’t, it’s a sketch I would go as far as to say, I don’t think it’s a finished painting at all, the generalities of the painting are quite accurate, though I think some of the details are a bit dodgy – but this is a watercolour drawing of a steam pumping engine. And it’s of a particular type of steam pumping engine, known as an atmospheric engine, or a Newcomen engine. Newcomen because Thomas Newcomen from Dartmouth in Devon, invented this engine in 1712, and atmospheric engine because it was improved by a number of inventors from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. And indeed it was the characters of this engine that led James Watt to develop his steam engine which became so revolutionary in powering all sorts of factories and then really to the steam engine as we know it today, in the form of a steam turbine and power stations both nuclear and thermal, with the separate condenser which is essential to the operation too.
But going back to this particular engine, as far as I can make out, and this is a provisional conclusion, this is an engine that was built on the lands of Carntyne by the Gray family who owned the estate of Carntyne in the East End of Glasgow, and it was built in a little place called Westmuir. Westmuir was, at this point which those of you who know Glasgow well will recognise, and that is where Duke Street and Carntyne Road separate at Parkhead, in the angle there. The map evidence I’ve been able to uncover shows a little rectangular building marked on the map and I would be fairly confident that this is the site of that engine.
The engine depicted is in a fact an improved Newcomen engine, the built up beam, the beam that projects from the masonry engine house, has got a whole series of bolts of timber bolted together. That is characteristic of the Newcomen engine as improved by John Smeaton, who was the first man who could strictly be called a Civil Engineer and who did a great deal of work in Glasgow, and Scotland, as well as building things like the Eddystone Lighthouse down off Plymouth. What Smeaton was trying to do was to improve the efficiency of the steam engine, and one of his improvements was to make a built up beam as we see here, which is stiffer than the simple timber beams that were used before. He also raised the tank that provided the cooling water to condense the steam in the cylinder, and you can see at the top of the stone engine house the tank, which has got pipes feeding it, the pipes are operated off the beam, and you’ll see from the end of the beam there is a chain which goes down to the pumps in the [corollary?] shaft. And then next to that there is another rod which is powering the pumps, which pumps the water to the top of the engine house. The water then ran from the tank at the top to the bottom of the cylinder, it was squirted into the cylinder, and it condensed the steam in the cylinder into water, thus creating a vacuum and pulling the piston down the cylinder and delivering the power to raise the beam. And then the weight of the pump rods pulled the beam down, until it reached the bottom of the pump in the shaft. Bit complicated, but very, very interesting. It is the only artistic representation, as opposed to mechanical drawing, known to me of an engine of this time, and it is therefore of very, very great importance. I don’t think there’s anything like it, anything like it in the known oeuvre of British painting of the period. The other feature worth noting is the boiler, which is the domed thing on the right, which has given rise, I think, to the description of this engine in the catalogue of the Georgian Glasgow exhibition as being a distillery engine – it wasn’t a distillery engine. I think, probably, the boiler is being confused with a still. You wouldn’t have a still in that location, it has none of the features of a still. Another thing to note, the children, who are mentioned in the caption in the catalogue, and the fact is that, until my childhood at least, children and young people could wander around industrial sites without much restriction at all. They learned at a very early age how to avoid the obvious risks; if they didn’t, well, children were a fairly expendable resource at that time.
So two extremely interesting images, roughly nine years apart, both third quarter of the nineteenth century, both on the transition of Glasgow from being a domestic, industrial city to being a really serious, hard industrial. But never a hard industrial city in the sense of lacking humanity, because the people who made Glasgow, both as entrepreneurs and as workers, had all that couthiness, that sense of humour which has made Glasgow known the world over, for its friendliness and for its wit.