This watercolour is one of a series of 64 views of the great viaduct over the River Colne in Essex, built between 1847 and 1849 for the Great Eastern Railway (originally the Colchester, Stour Valley, Sudbury and Halstead Railway). The artist, Wladymir Mirecki, is English, though of Polish parentage, and lives in the village of Chappel, over which the impressive structure passes.  He has painted each of its 32 arches from both sides, the 64 panels constituting a huge polyptych recording two complementary landscapes, looking east and west, each panel centred on a single arch. 

Mirecki’s work has always focused on the interrelationship of countryside (sometimes seaside) and modernity, and this is by far the most extensive of his investigations. It is both literal and poetical, a great ode to the unexpected grandeur of Essex scenery, and to the achievement of Victorian engineering. The viaduct dominates the valley it crosses, is 320 metres long and 23 metres at its highest, and was built, we’re told, with 7 million bricks (Wikipedia counts only 4.5 million). It has been an object of almost obsessive interest to the artist for many years and this exhaustive account of it as it exists today is the culmination of a long-drawn-out contemplation of a remarkable monument to the great age of industrial design. 

The viaduct was built by Peter Schuyler Bruff (1812-1900), a civil engineer who played a creative part not only in the Eastern Counties Railway but also in the development of several Essex towns, including Clacton, Harwich and Walton-on-the-Naze. He was also responsible for water and sewerage works throughout the county. The fact that the viaduct carries a line still in use as a public railway in the twenty-first century is testament to the robust efficiency of his engineering. Mirecki’s numerous pictorial tributes to the structure are a kind of prolonged homage to a fellow artist and benefactor of the county with which he has identified all his life.

In this, and in its ambition, the scheme might remind us of some of the grander projects of the great Romantic landscapists of the early nineteenth century: Thomas Girtin’s 360-degree panorama of London (1801) was executed in oil on canvas, and as a “spectacle” or mere entertainment was quickly destroyed; but it survives in part, at least, as a group of technically impressive watercolour studies. William Daniell, too, more famous for his scenes in India, made a series of aerial views of the Thames where technical virtuosity and informative detail combine in watercolour to majestic effect. Such experiments are now seen as precursors of cinema. Mirecki is also looking at alternative technologies and using a traditional medium to create an entirely new form of art. 

Wladyslaw Mirecki’s polyptych of the Chappel Viaduct is on display at the East Anglian Railway Museum in Chappel and Wakes Colne, Essex, until 18 August. The Exhibition is open Wednesdays and weekends, 10:00 to 17:00