I’VE just acquired one of the most extraordinary and original new books about the railways, among the myriad of titles pouring out from the presses every year. It is called “Railways: A history in drawings” – a bland enough title but which encompasses a cornucopia of material, including a myriad of the most exquisite engineering and architectural drawings, along with their back story, plus acres of fascinating social history, anecdote and photographs.
The drawings are taken from the magnificent collection of a million or more that reside in the collection of the National Railway Museum at York. All the favourites are here – the racehorses of the railways, including the Coronation and A4 classes of the LMS and LNER, along with the monuments of steam such as York station and the Royal Albert Bridge. The pioneering Rocket naturally has its place. But what makes this book so fascinating is the inclusion of items we may not have known about, but are just as much part of the railway narrative as the more celebrated artefacts.
We may not be too familiar with a hearse car from the London & South Western’s Necropolis Railway, but it played its own unique role in one of the more unique railway byways. Similarly a Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway ambulance train pharmacy car. A drawing of an London and North Western Railway artificial leg sits alongside those modern classics, the English Electric Deltic locomotive and the Advanced Passenger Train. And who knew about the story of the Associated Electrical Industries tracked hovercraft?
Producing these drawings in the earliest days, long before computers, was a skilled and complicated art form. Translating three dimensional objects onto a two-dimensional surface was challenging, requiring a deep understanding of geometry and perspective, as well as a level of of mathematical and artistic competence that would have been hard to find in Britain’s illiterate pre-industrial society. The output of these early draughtsman was truly revolutionary.
H.G. Wells wrote in 1905: “There is nothing in machinery, there is nothing in embankments and railways and iron bridges and engineering devices to oblige them t0 be ugly.” His point is proven by this wonderful collection that binds together the inventiveness of engineering with the aesthetic beauty of art. I cannot commend this book more highly.
“Railways: A history in drawings” by Christopher Valkoinen is published by Themes & Hudson, price £50