John Martin Robinson enjoys a new biography of Britain’s greatest engineer– the man who opened up Britain with an infrastructure that survives today
Man of Iron and Clothing Art
Biography Man of Iron Julian Glover (Bloomsbury, £25)
In the 19th century, thomas telford (1757–1834) was one of the most famous names in Georgian British history. he was buried in Westminster Abbey. he towered above the self-made geniuses and national heroes for whom the Victorians founded the national Portrait Gallery (NPG) to display great figures of the recent past as examples for the present and future.
however, in the course of the 20th century, the ‘man of iron’ who had engineered the Industrial Revolution and created the modern world became less of a role model. his portrait is no longer on permanent display in the NPG. Perhaps the end of steam trains removed the romance: smeaton, Rennie, Boulton & Watt and telford are not now the household names they once were.
Unlike his precursor Victorian biographers, Julian Glover (a former Conservative speechwriter) treats his subject less as a heroic force of nature and more as a complex, clever man. the stonemason turned architect turned engineer was arrogant and ambitious, but not fame-seeking. nor was he a sole genius: indeed, he worked with remarkable assistant engineers and contractors.
nicknamed the ‘Pontifex Maximus’ by his friend Robert southey, telford built churches, harbours, canals, docks, aqueducts, roads and bridges. he was also an amateur poet and loved the Borders landscape—he was a shepherd’s boy from Westerkirk in Eskdale— which he revisited every year throughout his life.
he was lucky to be born in Georgian scotland, with its excellent elementary education (the best in Europe), and all the opportunities following the Act of Union. Mr Glover traces telford’s career and celebrates his achievements as the archetype of the once cherished scotch myth ‘the lad o’pairts’, who made spectacular good to become a model of what can be achieved by persistence, skill and ambition.
the book begins with a glorious fanfare of purple paragraphs, all snorting horses, howling winds, rushing waters and cheering crowds as, at 1.35am on January 30, 1826, the first Royal Mail coach crosses the Menai Bridge en route from London to Dublin.
this remarkable feat of engineering in north Wales was the high point of telford’s career: at the age of 68, he had designed and built the first important modern suspension bridge, with a deck 580ft long hung 100ft above the straits from 16 thick iron chains. It was acclaimed as the eighth Wonder of the World and is still an object of astonished admiration today, as is his magnificent vertiginous canal aqueduct at Pontcysyllte over the River Dee.
the Menai Bridge may be the most famous of telford’s creations, but it’s just one of the 184 enor- mous projects on which he worked. Among these were 93 bridges and aqueducts, 37 docks and harbours and 17 canals, including the sublime Caledonian Canal connecting the German Ocean to the Irish sea across the scottish highlands and its concomitant Göta Canal across sweden.
Mr Glover’s rather old-fashioned literary style suits his subject, reselling the hero-worshipping cadences of samuel smiles’s 1862 Lives of the Engineers (anachronistic comparisons with hs2 would have been best edited out, however). Although not, as he claims, the first modern biography of telford (Aurum published one by Anthony Burton in 1999), Man of Iron is a lively, well-researched book that will help to put telford back where he belongs—in the Valhalla of British national heroes, an evergreen role model for ambitious, skilled boys.
Aileen Ribeiro’s magisterial and beautifully designed new book proves that all representations of clothing in art carry meaning. not always the one the painter intended, however, for it also explores the fallacy of ‘timeless’ clothing. A labour of love as well as scholarship, this huge tome offers 250 broadly chronological paintings, many little known. even just viewed as great european portraits dating back as far as 1600, it’s a tour de force.
Prof Ribeiro has led her field— the study of the history and portrayal of clothing—for decades. Her comprehensive knowledge flowers here, not just as scholarly insight, but also through her understanding of the ‘emotional aspect’ of clothing, painted or not.
The book has five sections, each of which stand alone: por- traiture; nationality in dress; dressing up—masquerade, artistic license and orientalism— and two brilliant 19th-century sections. of those, the first runs from impressionism to haute couture; the second, on designing dress, looks in detail at the 19th-century phenomenon of aesthetic dress that led to the 20th century’s artistic manipulation of clothing, both in painting and real life, from Gustav Klimt to sonia Delaunay and onwards to artists today.
Today’s printing of images on clothing actually began with elizabethan painted textiles, worn by elizabeth i. The author reveals how artists copied as well as deflected from real life, with a comparison of mid-1860s design sketches by Charles Frederick Worth (who also pioneered paper patterns) with Monet’s Femmes au Jardin.
Psychological analysis is deft. of note is John Collier’s Sacred and Profane Love, showing a returned First World War soldier reflecting on his choice between an old-fashioned, modest, elegant young woman in shotkhaki silk and a shingled, silkstockinged, lipsticked flapper. should he embrace the serene past? one’s heart urges him to grab the future.
That emotional response is controlled by artistic manipulation of clothing, about which, at every turn, this visually mesmerising overview breaks ground. Philippa Stockley
The Menai Bridge. Previously, cattle were forced to swim the strait
Fashion history Clothing Art Aileen Ribeiro (Yale, £55) Monet was familiar with designs by Worth (above) who probably created the dresses worn in Femmes Au Jardin, (1867, below)