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Both artists and scientists have questioned the idea of progress in our changing world. In relationship to nature and the environment, technological innovations continue to raise important questions about how we improve our landscape and the costs that might bring, whether environmental or social.

As part of our Art of Innovation exhibitionwe explore three innovations that brought art and science together to see the world from a different perspective. Each is embodied in an artwork in the Science Museum Group Collection.

Spectacular industry in Shropshire

One of the Science Museum’s most famous paintings shows how the industrial revolution changed the British landscape, in a way which both attracted and appalled artists. Coalbrookdale by Night by Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg was painted in 1801 and exhibited at the Royal Academy. It remains one of the most enduring images of the industrial age.

Coalbrookdale by Night by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, 1801
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De Loutherbourg shows the Bedlam furnaces at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, with billowing flames and smoke at the centre of the image. The furnaces turned iron ore into products for both industrial and domestic use. Most famous is the Iron Bridge built over the gorge at Coalbrookdale in 1777-79.

Model of cast-iron bridge over the Severn at Coalbrookdale by A. Darby (1779)
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The ferocity of the flames in De Loutherbourg’s painting are at odds with the scene that they illuminate – a picturesque landscape bathed in moonlight. They both threaten this rural environment and bring a sense of excitement and sublime beauty.

The figures in the painting are busy transporting the raw materials and iron products to and fro. They appear as both industrial heroes and hellish figures whose lives are in thrall to the furnace. De Loutherbourg captures the way that this new industry became a popular spectacle for tourist visits to Shropshire, but also a pall on the landscape, and a threat to established patterns and structures of society.

Arthur Young put this into words in his Annals of Agriculture and other useful Arts published in 1785, when he described Coalbrookdale as,

a very romantic spot … too beautiful to be much in unison with that variety of horrors art has spread at the bottom … the flames bursting from the furnaces with the burning of the coal and the smoke of the lime kilns are altogether sublime.

Learning from the Moon

Industrial success in Manchester allowed James Nasmyth to turn his attention to a very different landscape: the Moon. Like so many of us, he looked to the Moon for what it could tell him about the Earth, and drew some important lessons about the fragility of our terrestrial environment.

Nasmyth had studied the moon from the 1840s, making nightly observations of lunar craters and mountains in order to develop an accurate painting of the surface. He exhibited his remarkable full-face, 6-foot painting of the moon’s surface at the Great Exhibition in 1851. It won him a medal, and the personal interest of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria.

Not content with this audience, Nasmyth sought to produce his own book on the moon, sharing his images and observations. Published in 1874, with James Carpenter, The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite featured (what appeared to be) spectacularly accurate images of the lunar surface.

In fact, these had been produced through a complex process of drawing, modelling and photography. Nasmyth made detailed sketches of lunar features from multiple angles, which allowed him to judge their height and depth from comparing the shadows at different times of night. This then allowed him to create detailed three-dimensional plaster models of parts of the moon’s surface, which he photographed in strong sunlight to show the detailed relief.

Moon gallery

Both plaster and photography were trusted media for producing accurate imagery at the time. Plaster was often used by artists, like James’s father Alexander Nasmyth, while photography was gaining popularity as a scientific tool. Nasmyth brought the two together.

The purpose of his book was to argue for the theory that the Moon was volcanic and could, therefore, inform our understanding of terrestrial geology. Study of the Moon could allow us to make better use of the Earth.

In one of the most striking chapters, he imagined standing on the barren lunar surface, looking back at the fragile Earth:

‘[The moon] has taught us of a world in a condition totally different from our own; of a planet without water, without air, without the essentials of life development, but rather with the conditions for life destruction’

The implication is implicit, but clear – we must be careful that the Earth does not end in the same state.

Going beyond the sound barrier

The development of aerial flight gave humankind the ability to look down on the Earth’s surface from a distance. This new perspective on the landscape, which started with the hot air balloon, would ultimately allow for Apollo 8 astronauts to take images of the ‘Blue Dot’ earth in 1968 that fundamentally changed our view of the planet.

The earth viewd from space, a blue dot surrounded by black NASA
Earthrise, by William Anders, 1968

In the 1940s and 50s, the potentials of supersonic flight offered the latest technological innovation that might revolutionise our relationship not only with the earth, but with the air. Britain had started researching military supersonic flight during World War Two, which allowed an American airman to travel faster than the speed of sound and ‘break the sound barrier’ in 1947. After the war, attention turned to civilian travel.

In Britain, the Supersonic Committee led research on an aircraft for civilian flight. It required the development of a special slender delta wing design that allowed high-speed travel but also the lift needed for slower speeds at take-off and landing. At the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, W. E. Gray developed his own experimental models in balsa wood and polystyrene to test different wing designs. He used these in the wind tunnels, and sometimes simply off the roof of the RAE buildings.

Image of small wing shapes on grey background Science Museum Group
Models to test wing designs, by W E Gray, 1960s

In 1962, with the collaboration of France, this project would become Concorde, a popular sight in British skies until its last flight in 2003.

The excitement and beauty of potential supersonic flight were captured at the turn of the 1950s by artist Roy Nockolds. Better known for his realistic representations of aviation and motor technology, Nockolds produced a highly abstract image of high-speed air travel. The aeroplane appears as a red arrow against the sky, as Nockolds looks up from below. Curved lines arc out from the plane’s nose showing where its speed is compressing the air, causing shockwaves to spread and creating a sonic ‘boom’ as it passes through to smoother air.

'Supersonic' by Roy Nockolds, c.1948-1952.
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Nockolds evokes the feeling of contemporary spectators that ‘beyond the sound barrier’ might present a new world of adventure and discovery in the heavens.

The Art of Innovation

All three of these artworks show us how artists not only respond to, but also shape our understanding of scientific and technological innovation. They capture moments at which artists and scientists considered enduring questions about our relationship with the Earth and its landscape and used visual tools to attempt to find answers.

Find out more

Books and papers

  • Stephen Daniels, ‘Loutherbourg’s Chemical Theatre: Coalbrookdale by Night’ in John Barrell (ed.), Painting and the politics of culture: New essays on British art, 1700-1850 (Oxford, 1992), pp.195-230
  • Frances Robertson, ‘Science and Fiction: James Nasmyth's Photographic Images of the Moon’ in Victorian Studies, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Summer, 2006), pp. 595-623
  • Kenneth Owen, Concorde: Story of a Supersonic Pioneer (London: NMSI Trading, 2001).