Collecting Fine Art: Model Railroading – Part 1: The Layout
“. . . Model railroading as a fine art? This subject is rarely ever suggested, but it should be. Non-peers think of model railroaders as “the nut in the basement,“ or “the guy who doesn’t have the good sense to pick up the trains after Christmas” or“over-aged adolescents still playing with their toy train set.” People rarely call us artists, and that’s a travesty. Some of today’s modeling masters have artistic skills that place them among the all-time great painters and artisans. Much of their work should be preserved in museums forever, so future generations can enjoy, learn, and appreciate what they’ve accomplished. . . “
From Howard Zane’s book, My Life With Model Trains, chapter 9, The Great Masters: Michelangelo, Picasso, and Allen
To answer Howard Zane’s question, model railroading IS fine art, one only needs to look at the above photos to answer that question with a firm “yes.” John Allen took model railroading to the level of high art with his Gorre & Daphetid Railroad. First conceived in 1946, the final incarnation was started in 1954 and destroyed in a fire right after his death in January of 1971. At the time of its destruction, it was nearly completed, with the golden spike to be driven later that spring. Unfortunately, except for a few authenticated pieces, the layout was a total loss; however, John was an inspiration to so many others to take model railroading to a totally new level.
In the 21st century, George Sellios is considered to be the apex of the curve when it comes to today’s standards. Based on New England in the early 1930’s, George’s Franklin and South Manchester is a true masterpiece. It is considered to be the best model railroad in the world. However, there are many others, including rocker Rod Stewart with his Three Rivers City model railroad, who have also achieved the category of artist.
So what makes it art? What happens to you when you see a magnificent painting? Are you moved, inspired, awed? Have you ever felt like you wanted to escape into the painting? A model railroad can do the same. It can take you back to another place and time. It can also inspire and move. I know every time I have seen Howard Zane’s Piermont Division I feel like I am looking at a place and time in Appalachia, as much as any painter has conveyed with his brush to canvas.
Compare German artist Themisokles von Eckenbrecher’s painting “View of Laerdalsoren on the Sognefjord,” 1901, to the harbor lighthouse scene on George Sellios Franklin and South Manchester. Both capture the same realism, with similar use of light and shades, however, the lighthouse scene is a three dimensional creation. The same techniques used on canvas to highlight colors are also applied to model railroads. In both of these examples, pastels and soft colors are prominent; they lend nicely to the mood of the works.
Here are four photos, one of the real Cleveland Flats (photo Green City Blue Lake), top left, and then three renditions of the Flats: one, a painting of the Cleveland Flats done by Arthur Chartow, top right, plus two photos of a project we at SMARTT built that featured the Cleveland Flats. What do we see here? A photo of the Cleveland Flats, then two different interpretations of that area, one on canvas, the others as a model. In the bottom left photo we see how the use of warm light by the photographer gives the impression of either early morning or late afternoon, similar to the effect Arthur Chartow used in his painting. In the lower right photo we see the long shadows and warm light has given way to dusk, now, a cold gray light has taken over. This is a big advantage of models over canvas, for you can constantly change the mood of the work with lighting systems.
A fine art model railroad also offers other advantages over canvas, the two most important being animation and sound. For this is a model railroad, and model trains move, and they can even reproduce the same sound that the real trains make. When you put all this together, you come up with a visual effect that rivals 3D films. Here you have a steam powered train running through a landscape of highly detailed cities, country, rivers, and mountains along with sound and smoke, something not attainable on canvas.
I believe that model railroading when it comes to the level we have presented here is of high art, as fine as any painting or sculpture. I do believe that it is becoming more and more accepted as such. Thanks in part to celebrities like Rod Stewart, these layouts are beginning to get exposure beyond that of the model railroad world. A few years back, when I was living in Baltimore, I needed a ride over to Howard Zane’s house, so I asked my next door neighbor to take me. I told her about his model railroad, but she showed little interest. After viewing the layout she later conveyed to me that she was totally blown away, that she never seen or imagined anything like that existed. To most people, model trains are something you put away after Christmas, but thanks to these masters, and in part to some with the celebrity of Rod Steward, Model Railroading is finely become accepted as art.
In part 2, we’ll look at the trains themselves as an investment in fine art
—Ray Del Papa