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Mr Chesher's Traction Engines (1962)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Mr Chesher's Traction Engines (1962)
For Monitor, BBC, tx. 1/7/1962
15 mins, black and white
DirectorKen Russell
Production CompanyBBC
NarratorA.W. Chesher

A look at the work of A.W. Chesher, who specialises in painting traction engines.

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In Ken Russell's Monitor canon, Mr Chesher's Traction Engines fits squarely alongside Portrait of a Goon (BBC, tx. 16/12/1959) and The Preservation Man (BBC, tx. 20/5/1962) in its portrait of a memorably single-minded eccentric. It also looks forward to The Dotty World of James Lloyd (BBC, tx. 5/7/1964) and Always on Sunday, Russell's portrait of the Douanier Rousseau (BBC, tx. 29/6/1965), in its affectionate study of the work of naïve painter A.W. Chesher.

Mr Chesher's lifelong subject is the steam traction engine, which had dominated British agriculture since the 1840s. He had grown up in rural Bedfordshire surrounded by them, and they were also very much in the family. His great-grandfather had bought one at the Great Exhibition of 1851, and Mr Chesher himself had learned to drive one at sixteen. But the early 20th century, when Mr Chesher spent his childhood, was the last time when traction engines would be widely used: after service as heavy goods transportation vehicles in World War I, they were superseded by more efficient inventions such as the combine harvester.

Mr Chesher retired prematurely from agriculture following the loss of an eye and the use of one arm. He had always been interested in painting, but in retirement he began to take it seriously - as he says in Russell's film, it had been so long since his art lessons at school that he regarded himself as self-taught. By the time the film was made, he had produced some seventy paintings, almost exclusively depicting the various uses of the traction engine, and the Arthur Jeffress Gallery in London had staged an exhibition in 1960.

If the film lacks the visual pyrotechnics normally associated with Russell, that's appropriate for such a low-key subject, and he's generally happy to let Mr Chesher narrate his life story and give us a descriptive account of his paintings. But towards the end Russell takes his camera out to an actual traction engine display, and has the inspired idea of overdubbing the wheezing and clanking of the machines with Edward Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 (the famous 'Land of Hope and Glory'). Not only was this a completely apposite choice for a film celebrating a way of life that had almost vanished (the music being indelibly associated with the Edwardian era), but it also looked forward to what would become Russell's next film, his groundbreaking Elgar (BBC, tx. 11/11/1962).

Michael Brooke

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. On traction engines (1:43)
2. On painting (2:30)
3. The Great War (2:24)
4. Hope and Glory (2:14)
Always on Sunday (1965)
Elgar (1962)
Portrait of a Goon (1959)
Preservation Man, The (1962)
Russell, Ken (1927-2011)
Ken Russell: The Monitor Years