Railways The Pre-Raphaelites and the Growth of the Railways

William Holman Hunt The Hireling Shepherd 1851-1852

William Holman Hunt
The Hireling Shepherd 1851–2
© Manchester City Galleries

The nineteenth century saw the creation and unceasing expansion of the railway network in Britain. The amount of track laid increased from only 500 miles in 1838 to over 8,000 by 1855. During the same period the major railway termini – Euston, King’s Cross and Waterloo – were built in central London. In the following decades the London underground system, or the tube, was developed, and the main line rail service was extended to rural districts. This expansion of track brought down the ticket prices so that all but the poorest could afford to travel by train.

The growth of the railways had a significant impact on the Pre-Raphaelite artists. For the first time the countryside was within easy reach of the capital. Some of their earliest works were painted in Surrey, which had been made accessible by the extension of the London and Brighton railway in 1847. John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt were able to make landscape studies in Ewell in Surrey, which formed the background of Ophelia and The Hireling Shepherd.

The Pre-Raphaelites rarely included any signs of passing trains in their landscapes, but this new mode of transport enabled them to choose the places which have come to inform our vision of the Pre-Raphaelite landscape.