John Cooke Bourne

It was the writer John Britton who first persuaded the London & Birmingham Railway Company to publish a set of tinted lithographic prints by Bourne. Britton had two reasons for this request. Firstly, he felt that there was enough genuine interest in the subject matter to ensure their success, and secondly, he hoped they would counter the prevailing anti-railway culture.

The decision to produce the work was probably taken in the early part of 1837 and Bourne was sent northwards to sketch the nearly completed Watford Tunnel and views of the construction work at Boxmoor, Berkhampstead, Tring and Wolverton. By 8 July 1837, Bourne had reached the Kilsby Tunnel, where some of his most memorable sketches were produced.

It is Bourne's detailed recording of the progress of construction, the accurate delineation of the tools and the laborious work by the men, which makes his art so historically important. Although his work has strong artistic value, it is this accurate recording of the construction work that has given future generations an insight into the development of the railway network in Britain.

Another significant aspect of Bourne’s work is the realistic depiction of ‘navvies’ during the construction of the network, which he considered essential to the whole record. At that time, most of his fellow artists were concentrating on topographical, pastoral pictures of an idyllic England inhabited by innocent peasants pursuing rural tasks. Bourne realised that it was essential to depict an accurate record of the creation of these ‘iron roads’ as their development would revolutionise the world.

Bourne spent the winter and spring of 1837-38 preparing the lithographs. Thirty-six of the initial drawings were selected for publication.

"A Series of Lithographed Drawings of the London & Birmingham Railway" was first published in four parts by the publisher Ackerman in 1838. John Britton produced the text. The publication sets the railway in a global historic context and enthuses about steam power and its many applications. The text is crammed with statistics and the tone is energetic and optimistic. Britton realised that he was living in a time of great change.

There were several reprints and minor changes, but the critical appraisal was universal. "The Gentleman’s Magazine" of October 1838 and "The Birmingham Journal", "The Architect’s Magazine" and "The Spectator" in 1839, all praised the work for its new approach in depicting the English landscape.

Other reprints soon followed and work on the railway began to be accepted by some of those who had previously been wary of any social or technological change.