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Review - Exhibition - Telford - The Father of modern engineering

Telford: Father of Modern Engineering.
At the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, until 25 November

By Neil Cameron

Telford: Father of Modern Engineering.
At the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, until 25 November

If you ever doubt that civil engineering can be beautiful, just look at the work of Thomas Telford (1757-1834), whose 250th anniversary is being celebrated this year. The extraordinary Menai Suspension Bridge in north Wales (1826) combines innovative engineering with an elegant balance and simplicity of design which seems more Modernist than Regency.

Yet not only did Telford create some of the most visually arresting works of engineering design the world has ever seen, he was also responsible for some of its greatest technical advances, such as the building of the Göta Canal in Sweden which linked seas more than 370km apart.

Such achievements are all the more impressive given that Telford was brought up in poverty, born the son of a shepherd in a Borders bothy. Trained as a stonemason, his early years were spent working on buildings in Edinburgh and London before he became Surveyor of Public Works in Shropshire, where he developed skills in architectural design. But it is his profoundly practical understanding of how to build – as someone who had done so with his own hands – that made his engineering designs so successful.

This exhibition sets out to illustrate Telford’s remarkable career through some 200 items, including measured drawings and engravings, manuscripts, books, models and paintings. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the plans and elevations that really bring his work alive, reducing his forms to images of emblematic simplicity and thereby enhancing their pure, visual power.

The elegance and linear precision of a design such as Edinburgh’s Dean Bridge (1831) – its hollow stone-built structure defined by an exact understanding of the differential weighting on its inner and outer arches – is undeniable. Telford also showed the structural potential and lattice gracefulness of cast-iron as used in bridge designs such as Craigellachie (1815) and Conway (1826). The scale of his output is hard to encompass – he was responsible for over 2,000km of road, 1,000 bridges and over 30 churches in northern Scotland alone.

Despite numerous fascinating items in the exhibition, it does not include present-day images of Telford’s work, nor is there an accompanying publication. It’s regrettable, then, that the display is broken up by a number of large-scale digital photographs of Scottish landscapes by a German artist, Michael Reisch, commissioned to create a contemporary aura around Telford’s work. This attempt at a challenging intervention is misplaced and does nothing to highlight one of the latent themes of the exhibition – the potential of civil engineering as an art. The continuing relevance of Thomas Telford is best illustrated by the fact that so many of his works, products of a mind of singular genius, are still in use today.

Neil Cameron is an Edinburgh-based writer on architecture and art

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