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John Cooke Bourne is best known for his lithographic railway work produced as bookplates for the London & Birmingham Railway in 1838 and the Great Western Railway in 1843. However, Bourne did not limit his subject matter to the railways. Other bookplates depicted "The History of Steam Navigation" with text by Bennet Woodcroft and "Illustrations of Cairo" with text by Robert Hay. He also worked on drawings of the road bridge across the Dnieper in Kiev, Ukraine, for the engineer Charles Vignoles.
Although much of Bourne’s work has been recorded and researched, there are periods during which little or no material seemed to be produced. Currently the National Railway Museum is undertaking research into the artist’s life, in order to unearth any other works yet to be discovered.
John Cooke Bourne was born on 1 September 1814, to a hatter of Hatton Garden. His family also included the artist and engraver, George Cooke (1781 - 1834) who became Bourne's godfather. Bourne began his artistic career as a pupil of the landscape engraver John Pye (1782-1874). Under his guidance, he showed himself to be a highly competent draughtsman from an early age, with a remarkable understanding of line and form. Bourne probably used the camera obscura to understand certain effects and his interest in recording contemporary technology and industrial architecture would suggest that in another age he might have become a professional photojournalist.
In 1836, less than a mile from Bourne's home in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, Robert Stephenson the engineer, was beginning to build the London & Birmingham Railway. It started at Euston and ran through the streets and tenements of Camden Town, on towards the Midlands.
At the age of 22 Bourne began a series of sketches and watercolour drawings of Stephenson's construction work. As production of these increased, so did interest in his work. Bourne sent several examples of the sketches to John Britton (1771 - 1857) a writer and patron of the arts, who was greatly impressed and subsequently became his sponsor.
Later Britton described Bourne's work in his autobiography of 1850. He wrote that Bourne was producing "subjects of professional study, as scenes and compositions replete with picturesque effect and artistic character of the vast works of Camden Town." This quote highlights not only Britton's admiration for Bourne's work but also for the railways themselves. This was unusual for the time as most writers and social commentators were critical of their development, such as John Ruskin and Charles Dickens.
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