Exquisite Detail (model trains, trees, and realism)

This is a post about model railways.

The Folkestone Model Engineering Society held their annual exhibition at the week-end. It was their 40th birthday and they pulled out all the stops…

The show comprises lots of stands with people selling books, models and tools. In the centre of the room there are show lay-outs from all over the country. Prizes are given for best-in-show and so on.

Quite apart from the trains, there are several interesting things to see at this kind of event. My special interest is in the trees. There is a whole sub-branch of the railway model scene which is about trees.

The reason for this is that many people like to make a lay-out of some country branch line, or junction. Obviously, in the context of rural Britain, there is is plenty of scope for trees.

The level of detail in the show lay-out can only be described as “exquisite.”

I would say that model railways are probably where fine art was in about 1850! The show acts as a kind of salon where only certain kinds of lay-out are allowed. At the moment the quality of the work and the forms of realism are of a “classical” kind. Digital sound effects are just beginning to make an impact, but there is no point-of-view interaction and no film effects.

I think the absence of “cinema” effects is really surprising. Particularly since, as I’ve posted before, there is a long and glorious association between cinema and railways.

Anyway, you can see various groups trying to move their lay-oiuts to a new level of realism. This usually involves extending the scope of the lay-out so that the surrounding area is also rendered in detail. The thinking is that more detail is necessarily better…It’s as though detail is an absolute measure of quality.

But this is nonsense. Think about literature for a moment. It is as if the writing of descriptive passages was thought of as more significant than the writing of character or plot. By attending to the detail, the models miss out on the feelings that are associated with the experience of the railway. Accordingly, the level of realism is actually diminished.

It took years for painting to resolve the traumas associated with realism. This was especially the case after photography case on the scene and hi-jacked the claims to realism that had been implicit in fine art.

If you want to find out about the history of art and the 19C development of realism, look at Linda Nochlin’s book.

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