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Through the Looking Glass - or how to model Period

Page history last edited by Ian Stock 10 years, 10 months ago

Attempting to define a time period can set up some unexpected dilemmas


Ian Stock

As with so many things, the issues thrown up by garden railways regarding time period are very different from those of indoor models. Small-scale models built on indoor baseboards exist more clearly in a world of their own. The small size of the models makes it difficult to have the intimate relationship one can have with garden-sized ones; this immediately creates a sense of separation between the modeller and the model, which can be extended to the notional time period. In addition, the clear discontinuity created by the baseboard edge means that there is less perceptual mingling between the real world and the modelled one. This means that indoor models either exist in dedicated ‘bubbles’ of spaces, or conversely are portable (so that they take their own reality with them wherever they go).



A restrained approach to modelling the past


Contrast this with a garden railway, which much more clearly exists in real space and time. The relatively large scale of the models means that one gets much more closely involved with them, and when it comes to the railways themselves, they are so much bigger than us that they exist around us, and when we run or work on them, we effectively become part of them. This all makes it much more difficult to maintain a ‘separation’ between reality and the model.


The implications of all this for spatial matters have been discussed quite frequently, but relatively little attention has been given to the aspect of time. Given that, for the most part, the natural habitat of the steam engine is in the Past, how can we convincingly address the issue that ours exist in the Present?


It seems to me that there are three distinct approaches, each of which, well done can be completely plausible. I will, however, make no pretence that I am personally equally convinced by them all!


1. Ignore it


Perhaps the most common approach is effectively to ignore the issue altogether. The problem may not arise at all, if you are mostly just concerned with having fun running your trains. You may attempt some vaguely historical accessories to create a back-drop, but that is about all. Another version of this is to accept that the railway does just exist ‘now’. This allows you to assemble items from any historical period, and is perhaps most compatible with the concept of a model preserved railway. (This also conveniently does away with the geographical contradictions of a disparate collection of motive power and rolling stock). However, this approach also risks ending up looking rather incongruous, with the attendant destruction of atmosphere, and is clearly of limited use to those who are more interested in the whole, authentic railway scene.


2. Emphasise it


The second approach is simply to set a date or era in which your railway will exist, and accept that it will become a time capsule, divorced from real space and time going on around it. In this case, the observer will look in on the model across a ‘time threshold’, as often happens with indoor models. It does, however, allow you to go to town on the period detail, in a way exemplified by Laurie Wright’s Cwmcoediog line, which abounds in period paraphernalia hanging outside the shops, people in period costume etc.


Laurie has certainly done a convincing job, but to my mind there always exists the risk of creating a miniature heritage park, with the resultant loss of visual realism of a railway that clearly does exist in the present. ‘Period’ is a strange concept, and in my opinion not entirely connected with the more objective concerns of History. It always makes me feel vaguely uneasy, perhaps because I suspect that we are actually seeing a confected, romanticised version of what once really existed, and partly because to modern eyes it just doesn’t look real. I also wonder whether over-restoration is responsible for distorting a real understanding of the past, while you also have to be extremely careful to get it right. For example, while we clearly need to rid ourselves of the perception created by old photographs that the past existed in black-and-white, I do wonder whether the indiscriminate use of modern paints results in far more garish colour schemes than were actually possible at the time.


3. Down-play it


After much pondering on this issue, I arrived at a Third Way. This was in relation to my own railway, which is notionally set in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, but which is clearly visible to a wide audience, not just me, and for whom I did not wish to create an overtly period tableau.


My reasoning was this: ‘The Past’ is simply a confection of the present; it only appears ‘period’ because we have the benefit of hindsight. The styles and technologies of, say, the 1920’s appeared just as contemporary, modern even, at that time as those of today do to us. Therefore, when viewing what were then new things, the viewer would have had no experience of looking at period technology - while even the historical experience of seeing High Victoriana would have been tempered by the simple fact that that period was still the relatively recent past. Likewise, the natural world appeared to people at the time exactly as it does now: the trees were just as green in 1920 as they are today, the sun shone in exactly the same way, the wind and rain looked then just as now. In a sense, we are talking about a kind of timelessness which can still be experienced today, but not, ironically in those places that go all-out to create an experience of the past. The place to go is to the countryside. Yes, more subtle changes have taken place even there if you are in the know – thanks to changing farming techniques and Dutch Elm Disease, but in purely aesthetic terms, Nature has not changed – only the technology in the fields.


Therefore, another approach to encouraging a feel for a given ‘era’ is actually to under-play almost anything that too explicitly defines any era. I say ‘almost’ because there are significant exceptions. The other side of this coin is to ensure that you do not include anything that would clearly be incongruous, for example people wearing fashions that were clearly too modern, road vehicles or other technologies that post-date your supposed era.


Another mistake made by heritage centres is to over-play their hand. As mentioned earlier, they do this by over-emphasis on the distinctive aspects of a given period at the expense of those things that have presented continuity. What is more, there is also the dilemma of which part of your chosen era one is actually trying to represent: within my chosen 25 years, for example, significant changes took place. I have exactly the same difficulty with real-life architects and planners who insist on ‘period-style’ new-build in conservation areas, which in fact were the product of decades or centuries of evolution: exactly which bit of ‘period’ do you try to blend in with?  The only way around this is to specify a very precise date for your model, but at the cost of losing even more of the continuity of ‘real-time’.


On more mundane level, there has never been a time when everything surrounding us derived from one era. In the Twenties, much everyday material might well have derived from the mid-Nineteenth Century, just as to day we are still surrounded with products from the past. Thus it becomes completely acceptable to have Victorian artefacts in a Twentieth Century setting, whatever the heritage industry might feel. This was certainly true of NG railways right through the Twentieth Century, and remained true even on the main lines in the U.K. certainly up until the 1970’s when significant change took place.


However, such items were rarely accorded special attention – they remained everyday objects. Thus, they might not be in particularly good repair, their colours might be muted, and they certainly would not have been found posed in attention-grabbing locations.


So I managed to resolve my period difficulty by accepting that I am trying to model the present day – just a different present day. I am trying to present the 1910’s as they would have appeared to a person at that time, not as they appear to someone today looking back through a century of history.


Therefore, my approach is to under-play almost all historical detail, which also has the benefit of removing potential clashes caused when certain items do become incongruous. I have selected certain items such as sack barrows, milk churns (admittedly of Victorian design) seats and lamps that would have existed throughout a long period, but I have ensured that I have chosen nothing that would have appeared later than my intended period. This extends to matters such as the colour temperature and brightness of lamps when they come on in the evening - high-intensity modern lighting would shatter the effect.


That way, I can suggest a subtle bending of time, without losing the impression that the railway still exists in the here-and-now. In some ill-defined way, we are looking through Alice’s glass into a period characterised by its similarities and continuity with Now, and where the clues to the contrary are subtle and restrained.


But this all changes when a train appears.  My major expression of ‘period’ is the trains themselves – when Taliesin runs down the line in its lined-out Victorian maroon, its brass work shining in the sun, and with three suitable coaches in tow, this is the entire explicit period feel I find I need.


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