Valette’s steam and smoke


Windsor Bridge on the Irwell (1909).

Adolphe Valette (1876–1942) was a contemporary of Lionel Walden, and where Walden was an American who spent some time painting views of Cardiff, Valette moved to Manchester in 1905 where he painted a series of celebrated views of the city. If it’s a commonplace that foreign eyes often see what locals ignore, this has certainly been the case in Manchester. Friedrich Engels catalogued the lethal living and working conditions of the city’s labourers in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845, and it took Valette to find a subject for his art in the city’s smogs and polluted atmospheres at a time when many British artists were still painting scenes from Tennyson or the tales of King Arthur.


India House, Manchester (1912).

Valette’s Manchester paintings now reside in the Manchester Art Gallery whose curators have always made much of his being “the Manchester Impressionist”. The term isn’t unjustified even though Impressionism was long gone by the time he began these paintings; there is something Monet-like to a few of them. The gallery contains a large amount of fairly typical Victorian art, including a couple of well-known Pre-Raphaelite pieces, so Valette’s work has always stood apart not only for its urban theme but for its looser technique. My favourite is the view of India House from the banks of the River Medlock. Many of the bridges and buildings in these paintings can be seen today, albeit cleaned and (in the case of India House) gentrified. Valette captures the final years of unrestrained industrial pollution when the air in Manchester, London and other cities was often as bad as it is in some parts of China today.


Bailey Bridge, Manchester (1912).

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Steam and smoke


Cardiff Docks (1894) by Lionel Walden.

There’s a tendency to consider the art of the 19th century as being preoccupied with the rural, the mystical and the historic: all true in the case of the Pre-Raphaelites. But the effects of the Industrial Revolution attracted enough artists to create a sub-genre of painting that takes the miasmas of factories and the hellish glow of furnaces as its subject; Philip de Loutherbourg’s Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) is one of the more well-known examples, not least for being a painting that shows the future emerging from a rural landscape in a truly infernal manner.

Lionel Walden (1861–1933) was an American artist who was in Wales long enough to paint several scenes of the Cardiff docks and the steelworks. I’d not seen this gorgeously atmospheric painting of the docks before but it captures the light and the ambience of a British autumn/winter with the same fidelity as John Atkinson Grimshaw, an artist who made chilly mornings and smoky twilights his speciality. Walden’s other paintings are a lot lighter, with more traditional views of docks, boats and fishermen. (Via Beautiful Century.)


The Steelworks, Cardiff at Night (1893–97) by Lionel Walden.

Previously on { feuilleton }
How It Works
The art of John Atkinson Grimshaw, 1836–1893