Curator's Choice: Dr Matt Thompson on Landscape with Machines at Britain's Original Industrial Powerhouse in Shropshire

By Ben Miller | 27 October 2015

Dr Matt Thompson, Senior Curator at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, on a Thomas Hornor work and more from new exhibition Landscape with Machines

An image of a greyscale painting of an industrial landscape in Merthyr Tydfil by Thomas Hornor
Thomas Hornor (1785-1844), Rolling Mill, Merthyr Tydfil© Ironbridge Gorge Museum Collection
"I guess it’s a misty evening somewhere between 1814 and 1820. The light that comes out from the open sides of the mill and all the fires and flames that are going on…the artist has just captured this really striking array of lines showing shadows that radiate out across the sky. The reason why I like it is because to me it’s just, I don’t know…so startling and kind of modern in the way it looks.

It reminds me of the paintings of Nash or what have you during the First World War – this strikingly modernist image. Thomas Hornor is an artist who was perhaps best known for rather picturesque views of Wales. One of the reasons why it’s significant is because it made me think again about our collections and how they might sit alongside more contemporary pieces.

A photo of a curator standing among industrial triangular sculptures at Ironbridge Gorge
Curator Dr Matt Thompson pictured with Minster (1994), by Tony Cragg (courtesy British Council Collection), in the new exhibition at Ironbridge© Stewart Writtle
When we were looking at what could be potential works, it struck me as being this really quite naïve but also incredibly modern work, with striking lines. It looks like searchlights during the Blitz or something like that.

Artists found industry and industrial landscape troubling or inspiring or sublime, in the traditional sense of the word. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries they were trying to work out what it meant, trying to understand what their new place was in relation to the landscape. How do we play a part in all of it, what’s actually going on?

A black and white photo looking upwards at the industrial Stockport Viaduct bridge
John Davies, Viaduct, Stockport (1986)© Courtesy John Davies / British Council Collection. Photo: Todd White
Artists are still photographing railway viaducts in Stockport or closed down mining towns, whatever it might be. It’s still something we’re dealing with. If we could say ‘yeah, we know the impact the Industrial Revolution had on our sense of identity and our relationship with the landscape’, then it wouldn’t be inspirational for artists, they wouldn’t spend all their time worrying this problem.

Jeremy Deller is trying to understand industry and how it shapes people’s lives. He thinks heavy metal came from the Midlands because these people were surrounded by the heavy, banging clangs of the ironworks and the steelworks. If you think about the music of the Beatles or more heavily syncopated skiffle stuff, he’s saying that all belonged up in Liverpool and Manchester, where they had cloth looms and you get much more light, skipping sounds.

A landscape photo by Stuart Whipps showing a small hut and aerial on a mountain
Stuart Whipps, Shed (2008)© Courtesy Stuart Whipps
The different types of industry had a profound effect, not just on the buildings or the stuff they produced but on the social identity of the people who were there. We’ve got this great 20-minute film of his, Saxon Wheels of Steel, and it begins with this superb section where the soundtrack is sacks and wheels of steel - I hadn’t heard them for years – spliced in time with filmed steel production in the 1950s in Sheffield. Deller has got some very well-known names reading extracts – Jarvis Cocker, Nobby Holder, who’s fantastic. It’s wonderful, really good stuff. I love that film.

It might seem unbelievable, but people are still remaking the Industrial Revolution. Some people like to refer to it as an industrial enlightenment, and historians are really beginning to delve into its characteristics and what made it happen here.

A photo of a painting by JMW Turner showing Rain, Speed and Steam on a railway
R Brandard, Rain, Steam and Speed (after JMW Turner) (1859-1861). Engraving© Ironbridge Gorge Museum Collection
Is it simply a historiographical product? Is it something we can only recognise when we are looking back on it by a century and a half? What is its ongoing impact? All the other stuff in the exhibition tumbled out of Hornor’s work.

One of the reasons we wanted to go for Grants for the Arts from the Arts Council and work with a contemporary arts group is that we have to question our own processes and methods of working. Galleries have been showing films for years, but we hadn’t been.

An image of a painting by Clare Mitten showing a circular silver industrial machine
Clare Mitten, Carousel (2011). Gouache on card© Clare Mitten
And there are some wonderful photographic works. Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have made an interior photograph of the changing rooms in a disused coalmine which is just so dense and textural. Some people looked at it and thought ‘is this a piece of tapestry?’, literally trying to understand what these shapes and layers are.

Clare Mitten’s works are playful sculptures made out of corrugated cardboard, inspired by the natural world. She remakes machines and items of technology, twisted ever so slightly to take on a naturalistic appearance.

An image of a painting by Clare Mitten showing a circular silver industrial machine
Clare Mitten, The Pollinator (2014). Mixed media© Clare Mitten
We’ve got historical images of machinery that required people to operate them with real skill. I won’t say they’re like cyborgs, but it’s human and machine working together. These enormous steamhammers were used in furnaces, foundries, everything – massive great big things hammering hot bits of metal.

You could place a nut on top of a gentleman’s pocket watch on the anvil and crack the nut without damaging the pocket watch. There were other ones where you could place eggs in wineglasses, crack the egg and leave the wineglass whole. It’s not just brute force, hit the damn thing as hard as you can. It’s a natural skill and a mechanical aid. Mitten’s pieces are like that.

An image of a painting by Clare Mitten showing a circular silver industrial machine
Clare Mitten, Carriage (2011). Gouache on paper© Clare Mitten
Let’s get a bit pulp fiction on this one: if a lily and a car engine were caught in the machine that the dude in The Fly had, these are the kinds of shapes and structures that would come out of it. There’s something intensely playful but really exciting about them.

It’s been great fun to work with a different group of people and to think about things in a very, very different way. It’s something that I suspect Ironbridge will want to do a lot more of in the future.”

  • Landscape with Machines is at Ironbridge until December 18 2015. The exhibition is part of Shifting Worlds, a contemporary art programme produced with Meadow Arts.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

An image of a painting by Alison Wilding showing a cone-shaped silver cylinder
Alison Wilding, RA, Her Furnace (1987)© Courtesy New Art Centre, Roche Court
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