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EN / nl

Coalbrook-dale

The Industrial Revolution became fully visible in the second half of the 18th century when the harnessing of water power led to a huge increase in the size of machinery and large-scale factories entered the landscape. The largest in England was the ironworks at Coalbrookdale in Shropshire, where deposits of coal and ironstone were found close together, and where Abraham Darby began smelting iron ore with coke rather than charcoal. The first single-span iron bridge was erected over the River Severn in 1779 to carry the massive increase in traffic south from the Dale.

Coalbrookdale became the testing ground for changing attitudes toward nature and the landscape, an irresistible lure for artists, poets and travellers (forerunners of the modern tourist). It was a particularly romantic place: a long valley between steep, thickly wooded hills. Poets like Anna Seward mourned the desecration of this beautiful, wild valley, now filled with industrial machinery, engines and forges: O, violated Colebrook! In an hour... The Genius of thy shades, by Plutus brib’d Amid thy grassy lanes, thy wildwood glens, Thy knolls and bubbling wells, thy rocks and streams, Slumbers! – while tribes fuliginous invade The soft, romantic consecrated scenes; Haunt of the wood nymph... (quoted in Klingender 1968:89) The poem uses the classical iambic pentameter to describe the loss of the picturesque landscape, and both old and new are infused with classical references to nymphs and Plutus, the ancient Greek god of wealth, while the invading labour force is given the Latinate epithet ‘fuliginous’, sooty. But others saw in the man-made scenes something thrilling: a new form of the sublime, no longer produced by the terrors of the natural world – mountains, avalanches, torrents, ravines – but by the ‘art’ of industry. As the modernising agricultural writer and traveller Arthur Young wrote in 1785, “That variety of horrors art has spread at the bottom [of Coalbrookdale]; the noise of the forges, mills etc. with all their vast machinery, the flames bursting from the furnaces with the burning of the coal and the smoak [sic] of the lime kilns, are altogether sublime” (quoted in Klingender 1968: 89). This is the effect de Loutherbourg achieves in Coalbrookdale by Night (1801), enhanced by the contrast between the fires and the blackness of night. Coalbrookdale was a frequent subject for topographical draughtsmen as well as for artists specialising in the picturesque. In Iron Works, Colebrookdale [sic], an aquatint from The Romantic and Picturesque Scenery of England and Wales (1805), de Loutherbourg treated it in a picturesque mode. Rather than emphasising the overwhelming, inhuman power of the new industrial landscape he focuses here on ‘pictorial incidents:’ the man on an old carthorse, with the small sled and dog, and the broken outlines of the banks and hills. The curious objects in the foreground, which appear to be broken chimneys and pipes, might be industry’s equivalent of the fallen classical columns in romantic scenes of ruins. DA