Coalbrookdale by Night
Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1801
Science Museum, Science and Society Picture Library, London
This composition is dominated with strong hot colors occupying the top diagonal right hand side. Billowing clouds of reds, oranges, and yellows serve as a backdrop to silhouetted structures in the left middle ground. Further along in the right background, smaller structures (chimneys)—some triangular—spout additional smoke that is absorbed into the background. In the visual center, the billowing clouds consume a lone chimney, its silhouette barely visible. Immediately in front of the central chimney, several figures doing manual tasks are barely visible as well.
In the central foreground, placed on a diagonal, a team of workhorses draws a wagon filled with goods. One man leads the team, while another sits on the wagon. All of the figures glisten with the reflected light of the billowing clouds. The diagonal line of action created by these figures leads the viewer’s eye deep into the composition. The receding diagonal of houses on the left complements this line, creating a point that is visually enunciated by a lone figure right of center. Objects scattered in the left and right foreground help to balance the composition.
de Loutherbourg, an émigré from France, came to England in 1771. An academic painter, de Loutherbourg began work as a set designer with David Garrick’s Drury Lane Theater in London, remaining there until 1785. He was interested in the occult and illusionist practices, and after 1790 developed the Eidophusikon, a theatrical light system that gave the illusion of movement using shifting lights. de Loutherbourg was an acquaintance of Turner, both being fellow members of the Royal Academy. Both ascribed to sublime representations in landscape painting, arousing ‘feelings that invigorate and elevate the mind.’ (Burke)
de Loutherbourg’s interpretation of Darby’s Coalbrookdale, using massive amounts of hot colors, focuses on the awe-inspiring aspects of the flames of the iron furnaces. Coke, stronger than charcoal, served as the fuel for blast furnaces to smelt iron ore. Bigger and taller furnaces were developed to handle the ever-increasing demand for iron. By the end of the 18th Century, the fires at Coalbrookdale and the technology of Iron Bridge became tourist attractions.
de Loutherbourg’s vision of Coalbrookdale focuses on the sublime aspects of natural forces overshadowing man. His theatrical associations translated the fires into an awe-inspiring background of an industrial location, idealizing the actualities of iron making processes. The workers are small in comparison.
…beautiful sheets of hanging wood… and yet too beautiful to be much in unison with the variety of horrors…the noise of the forges, mills, &c. with all their vast machinery…the flames bursting from the furnaces with the burning of coal and the smoak of the lime kilns, are altogether sublime.
Arthur Young, describing Coalbrookdale, 1776
…Pond’rous engines clang
Through thy coy dales; while red the countless fires,
With umber’d flame, bicker on all thy hills
Dark’ning the Summer’s sun with columns large
Of thick, sulphureous smoke
Anna Seward; The Swan of Litchfield, 1785