The Grand Aqueduct Bridge

The Lune Aqueduct

The Lune Aqueduct is the palisaded structure partly visible in the immediate foreground of the painting.

Alt text Segment of Turner’s painting depicting the bridge in the foreground

This waterway over the River Lune (historically, the town’s main artery) was completed in 1797, the very year in which Turner first sketched it.

Referring again to ‘Picturesque Views of England and Wales’ (a series of topographical studies showcasing notable buildings and landscapes), the Lune Aqueduct is praised as a ‘magnificent structure consist[ing] of five semicircular arches, each 70 feet span, and rising 39 feet above the water.’ ‘The union of stability and elegance’, this account concludes, ‘has been studied in every part of the design.’

The Grand Aqueduct Bridge

This ‘magnificent structure’ was the work of the Scottish engineer John Rennie (1761–1821) and the Scottish architect Alexander Stevens (1730–1796), and it was the crowning architectural achievement of the north end of the Lancaster Canal.

The aqueduct proved an expensive undertaking, though, and cost more than £48,000 (about £2,000,000 today).

Upon its completion in 1797, the Lune Aqueduct opened a line of transit between Preston and Tewitfield, near Carnforth: a distance of more than 40 miles. This new mode of conveyance represented a substantial improvement on transport by packhorse or waggon. Roads in Lancashire in this period were notoriously difficult to traverse.

By 1819, an extension linking the canal north to Kendal (a market town in Westmorland – now part of Cumbria) was completed, making the canal an important transport link between the industrial centres of southern Lancashire and markets and production centres farther North.

The perceived importance of the Lancaster Canal as a transport link is emphasised in the dedicatory inscription on southern side the aqueduct (not visible in Turner’s painting):

QUAE DEERANT ADEUNT: SOCIANTUR DISSITA: MERCES FLUMINA CONVENIUNT ARTE DATURA NOVAS. A.D. MDCCXCVII. ING. I. RENNIE EXTRUX. A. STEVENS. P. ET F.

A loose translation proposed by John F. Curwen captures the spirit of the inscription rather nicely:

Old needs are served; far distant sites combined; Rivers by art to bring new wealth are joined. A.D. 1797. J. Rennie, Engineer. A. Stevens and son, Contractors.

The author of the inscription was no doubt playing on the word merces (‘reward’). Merces, the source of the English word ‘mercy’ (literally, a benefit or favour) derives from merx, the source of the words ‘merchant’, ‘merchandise’, and ‘market’.

Such a conception of the canal (as an engineering achievement benefiting local commerce) certainly agrees with the view of Lancaster Turner’s painting provides.

Art as historical evidence

Now that you’ve spent some time examining this painting of a historic scene, has it changed your view on the value of art as historical evidence? Share your thoughts by posting a comment.

Extension activities

If you are interested, you can view images of Turner’s original sketches via the Tate’s website. Try searching their collections for items with reference numbers D01067, D11167, D11583 and D11585. Be sure to have a look at the catalogue entries that appear below the images of these items on the Tate’s website. In addition to useful contextual information, these entries include links to other relevant items such as engravings based on Turner’s painting.

Taking matters farther…

Having completed this segment, please revisit the notes you made while initially examining Turner’s painting. Consider taking your investigation of the work further by researching one or more of the different landmarks it portrays. Perhaps choose an element of the painting omitted from the foregoing discussion. Reflect on why Turner might have selected to include that element in his work.

Further reading

John F. Curwen’s article, ‘The Lancaster Canal’, appeared in the Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society in 1917 (vol. 17, pages 26–47). Though dated, it’s still a great source for further information about this subject.

Additional information can be sourced from the Victoria History of the County of Lancaster (vol. 8, William Farrer and James Brownbill, eds., 1914), which is freely available via British History Online.

A more recent survey of Lancaster’s development during the 18th and 19th centuries can be found in Andrew White, ed. A History of Lancaster (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001).

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This article is from the free online course:

Lancaster Castle and Northern English History: The View from the Stronghold

Lancaster University