George Stephenson by Thomas Lewis Atkinson, based on a work by John Lucas

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    George Stephenson,    by Thomas Lewis Atkinson, after  John Lucas,    published 1849,    NPG D13734,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
George Stephenson, pioneering engineer and the ‘Father of the Railways’.
George Stephenson
by Thomas Lewis Atkinson, after John Lucas
mixed-method engraving, published 1849
31 7/8 in. x 20 1/2 in. (811 mm x 522 mm) plate size; 36 1/4 in. x 23 7/8 in. (920 mm x 607 mm) paper size
NPG D13734
© National Portrait Gallery, London

George Stephenson (1781–1848) was a pioneering engineer who is often remembered as the ‘Father of the Railways’.

He is best known for his role in the development of rail travel as we know it today. His ideas and inventions made it possible for people to travel to places they could never reach before. His vision for a national network of railway lines sparked a transport revolution that would reach across Britain and into the wider world, transforming the lives of people from all walks of life.

Analysing the portrait

  • View larger image
    George Stephenson,    by Thomas Lewis Atkinson, after  John Lucas,    published 1849,    NPG D13734,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
George Stephenson, by Thomas Lewis Atkinson, after John Lucas, published 1849

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a minute. What can you see?

    • George Stephenson is wearing a dark suit, with a waistcoat, white shirt and cravat (a kind of tie). His suit is covered by a long, dark overcoat. He is holding a black top hat and wearing smart, shiny shoes. 
    • These are the clothes of a respectable, well-off man from the time.
    • George Stephenson came from a very poor family but made his fortune through his inventions and ideas.
    • Stephenson is standing next to a railway line. There is a steam train in the background which is moving towards us, the viewer.
    • The Locomotive A railway engine that pulls a train. pulling the carriages is called Rocket, which George Stephenson designed and built with his son Robert Stephenson. It is probably the most famous locomotive in the world.
    • He is standing in a flat area of land. The pile of Peat A soft black or brown substance formed from old or dying plants just under the surface of the ground, especially in cool wet areas. next to him looks as though it has been dug to help make way for the railway line.
    • This is the route of the Manchester to Liverpool railway line, one of the earliest passenger rail routes. Stephenson’s skill and vision as an engineer made it possible to build the railway line on this Boggy Soft and wet land. stretch of land, something people thought was impossible.
    • His Pose A particular position in which somebody stands or sits to have their portrait made. and his expression look confident and assured. He is standing with his left hand holding the edge of his jacket. He also has one leg forward and is holding his hat rather than wearing it, making him look relaxed. He is looking straight at us.
    • His face and hair show us he is an older man.
    • The location and the inclusion of Rocket in the background are a celebration of some of his greatest achievements as a railway engineer.
George Stephenson told me as a young man that railways will ... become the great highway for the king and all his subjects.
John Dixon, 1875

Who was George Stephenson?

  • George Stephenson was born into a poor, coalmining family. He did not have a formal education. At the age of 18 he paid for himself to have lessons in reading, writing and maths.
  • His early career was spent working on different types of machinery used in mines. This was the start of the Industrial Revolution when technologies such as steam engines were new.
  • In 1811, Stephenson successfully fixed a problem with a Newcomen engine The first machine to be powered by steam, and used mainly to pump water out of mines. . The owners were so impressed, they put him in charge of all machinery at their mines.
  • In 1821, Stephenson was appointed engineer for the construction of the Stockton and Darlington railway. The carriages were designed to be pulled by horses, but Stephenson thought a steam Locomotive A railway engine that pulls a train. would be faster and could pull heavier loads.
  • The railway opened in 1825, hauled by Locomotion I. This was the first steam locomotive to be designed and built by George and his son Robert, and the first steam-hauled passenger railway in the world.
  • In 1829, Stephenson was made engineer for the Liverpool to Manchester Railway. It opened in 1830 and was the first Intercity Travelling between cities, usually with not many stops on the way. railway in the world. The trains were hauled by a new locomotive called Rocket, designed and built by George and Robert Stephenson. It was faster and much safer than Locomotion I.
  • These successes paved the way for the laying of railway lines and the construction of Locomotive A railway engine that pulls a train. all over Britain. George Stephenson became engineer on a number of these projects and was even consulted in the development of railways in Spain and Belgium.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This is a Commemorative Intended to help people remember and respect an important person or event in the past.  portrait. It was published about a year after George Stephenson’s death.
  • It celebrates the impact of Stephenson’s most significant achievements in developing the world’s first railways.
  • This is an engraving, which meant it could be easily reproduced and published widely (in newspapers for example) for as many people as possibly to see, unlike a painting.

Questions

  1. What different ways did people in Britain travel before the railways?
  1. How might this have been different for wealthy and poor people, or men and women?
  1. Why do you think there are so few portraits of the people who worked to build the railways?