Railway artist - John Harrison

Arten Gill Viaduct. Settle and Carlisle railway.

Arten Gill Viaduct. Settle and Carlisle railway. - Credit: Archant

Love for the steam age still burns bright in England, and railway artists such as John Harrison from St Helens help to stoke that passion

Memories of 8G Sutton Oak Motive Power Depot in the fifties

Memories of 8G Sutton Oak Motive Power Depot in the fifties - Credit: Archant

Wet Day at Wigan...it doesn’t sound much like artistic subject matter to set the pulse racing.

Wet Day at Wigan is John Harrison's best-selling painting

Wet Day at Wigan is John Harrison's best-selling painting - Credit: Archant

And yet this moody evocation of a damp, grey scene on a smokey rail line from Wigan to Warrington in the 1950s is railway artist John Harrison’s best-selling work, with dozens of prints sold.

Railway artist John Harrison

Railway artist John Harrison - Credit: Archant

Since taking early retirement as an art teacher in 1988, John has been painting nostalgic evocations of railway scenes of northern England from the spaghetti junction of rail lines converging at Crewe Junction to the epic infrastructure of the Settle to Carlisle line.

But perhaps Wet Day at Wigan best sums up our notions of the steam age - smoke hanging in damp grey skies, men stoically braving the elements at trackside, majestic machinery chugging out of the mist en route to who-knows-where.

‘It’s the atmosphere I like in my paintings, rather than the details of the locomotives,’ says John, aged 80, of Windle, St Helens. But capturing that atmosphere, along with all the period detail of trains and rail paraphernalia, is a painstaking business.

‘My fascination is with track, particularly complicated junctions,’ says John. ‘Drawing those out in detail takes a long time in pencil. It takes weeks and weeks to draw out and check and double-check that you have got the perspective and everything correct. Then when you start putting on watercolour, the momentum increases.’

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That level of intricacy means John averages about five paintings a year. He is one of the mainstays of the Guild of Railway Artists, which celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2014.

‘When it comes to doing something like Crewe in the 1930s, you have to rely on photographs - collect as many as you can. I don’t copy a photograph - I’ve never in my life done that - but you end up surrounded by a dozen photographs of the area and build up my own scene from that.’

For another favourite subject, the Settle to Carlisle railway, John has a fund of his own photographs to draw upon.

‘We have a daughter who lived in Cumbria for a number of years and we used to stay with her,’ he says. ‘I went the whole length of the Settle to Carlisle line taking photographs of the scenery and the line.’

John’s painting of Ribblehead station in the snow was used as a Christmas card by the Friends of Settle Carlisle Line.

But sometimes, what John paints are other people’s memories. One railway buff commissioned the painting Home Time, showing the intersection at Sutton, St Helens as it was in the 1950s, with a loco steaming along the Widnes line while another train passed below it on the Liverpool to Manchester line.

‘He specifically wanted the locomotives put in and he knew them by number,’ says John.

Another train fan saw John’s painting of Arten Gill viaduct on the Settle to Carlisle line and loved it but for one detail...the train in the distance, crossing the viaduct was pulled by a diesel loco. So the artist was commissioned to do a second version of this pastoral scene, but with a particular steam engine on the viaduct.

John was not a trainspotter in his youth, but does recall a childhood fascination with the London Midland and Scottish Railway expresses he saw at Warrington Bank Quay station on family outings, and recalls taking the walkway beside the railway on the Runcorn bridge.

‘I remember going over it with my dad and being frightened to death when a train went past, because the whole thing shakes and vibrates,’ says John.

When John studied at Liverpool College of Art in the 1950s, he would go to Lime Street station to sketch what turned out to be the declining years of the steam age.

Fifty years on, nostalgia for that age is as keen as ever, and there are artists earning a living painting steam rail scenes. Why this enduring passion?

‘Why are some people fanatical about football?’ John responds with a rhetorical question. ‘You can’t put it into words.’