This is a painting of Dudley, my hometown, by one of England’s finest ever artists -Joseph Mallord William Turner
Turner visited Dudley, Worcestershire in the late summer and autumn of 1830. The town is situated half-way between Birmingham and Wolverhampton in the heart of England’s Black Country, so called because of ‘the dense clouds of smoke which belched continuously from thousands of coal-fired hearths and furnaces’.
These polluted the environment with vast amounts of soot. In addition to highly concentrated manufacturing enterprises, Dudley was associated with the invention of the steam engine (it was first operated near Dudley Castle in 1712) and in 1821 the first iron steamship was built in the Dudley area at the Horseley Ironworks. If Turner wanted to capture the essence of English industrialisation, he could hardly have chosen a better subject than Dudley.
Turner depicts the dramatic intensity of a town in the throes of industrial change against the backdrop of a traditional landscape. The symbols of tradition and faith (the ruins of Dudley castle on the hillside and the church steeples to the left) are pictured alongside the furnaces, chimneys, boilers and canal boats of the modern industrial age.
For the writer and painter John Ruskin (1819-1900), who owned the work at one stage, ‘Dudley’ represented Turner’s own hatred of industrialisation. In 1878, he wrote that he found it a clear expression ‘of what England was to become’, with its ‘ruined castle on the hill and the church spire scarcely discernible among the moon-lighted clouds, as emblems of the passing away of the baron and the monk’. In fact, Ruskin’s interpretation is distorted by his own increasing antipathy towards industrialisation and probably had little to do with Turner’s real intentions.
In ‘Dudley’ the emphasis is on the remarkable forces of power and energy beneath the surface of industry. This is emphasised by the nocturnal setting; we see figures at work in the artificial light produced by the many fires associated with manufacturing. There is a mysterious aspect to this illumination because we are never quite sure where the light is coming from- it represents the hidden, mysterious powers of mechanisation.