Books

John Martin Robin­son en­joys a new bi­og­ra­phy of Bri­tain’s great­est en­gi­neer– the man who opened up Bri­tain with an in­fra­struc­ture that sur­vives to­day

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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)

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