The National Collection of Railway Posters
by Beverley Cole
15 November 1999
Beverley Cole has been with the NRM for 16 years
working with the collection of Railway Company posters. This now runs
to some 7000 examples, covering the period from 1890 to the present. The
latest major event which was the subject of advertising by the Railway
Companies was the full eclipse of the sun this August - the NRM had a
small exhibit comparing these with the equivalent ones for the 1928
Beverley structured her illustrated talk to cover
conservation, examples from the collection and then gave a preview of
the Southern Railway special exhibit which will shortly appear in the
gallery at the NRM.
The early posters tend to be in either double royal -
25 by 40 inches, or quad-royal - 40 by 50 inches. If these arrive at
the museum on a card backing, the first step is to arrange to
"floated-off" the poster, using a specialist company. Normally, this
works well if it has been attached with normal paste, but if fish glue
has been used, nothing can be done. Often, when the top poster is
removed, there are 2 or 3. Unlike the top copy,these were often only
displayed for 3 months, so are usually in excellent condition. Being
intended as ephemeral documents, the posters were commonly produced on
acidic paper and therefore subject to deterioration, requiring
stabilisation before archiving.
Letterpress posters were the first type of
publicity produced by the early railways. These usually just announce
what times the train left with no attempt to attract customers. The
contemporary stagecoach companies followed a different approach, waiting
for passengers until they were full, so inevitably the public were
confused and the posters were intended to educate the public about the
Over time the advertising poster developed into an
art form, with some of the best artists in the country employed.
However, this took a long time.
Examples from the Collection
Before the first world war the train was the only
way to travel any distance and, as a consequence, there was little
pressure to compete, other than against other railway companies. One of
the areas of such competion was in the promotion of sea bathing, which
expanded rapidly after the 1880s. Most of the resorts catered for all
types, but some tried to differentiate themselves by looking to the more
select clientel. Surprisingly, Blackpool was initially amongst this
select group, but soon sucumbed to all classes and its current success.
Southport was promoted as an all-year round resort with carefully
crafted explanations about the weather! Inland resorts were also the
subject of railway company promotion. Harrogate, for example, doubled
its number of visitor in 1849 when the railway arrived. Golf was also
popular and the Scottish companies promoted it extensively. Skegness in
1871 had only 500 visitors, by 1907 it had 300,000 - and this was before
it became "so bracing"!
After the 1923 groupings, new arrangements brought
differencies. The GWR had never been noted for the quality of its
posters, but in 1923 it issued "Bathing in February in the Cornish
Riviera" with straight-forward black & white photographs . In the
1930s the GWR tried to catch up with the competition by introducing
coloured artwork. In 1933, they introduced six posterd from Edward
McNight-Caverner of Devon and Cornwall which caused a lot of positive
comment. In 1936, an unusual mosaic style was used, also causing a good
deal of comment. In 1939, their most famous poster was published "
Speed To The West".
The Southern took time to establish unity between
its component companies. The Frits posters gave this process a boost by
providing factual data on the new combined company network. A "Local and
Information Section" at Waterloo Station took over responsibility for
the production o these and all other publicity for th new company.
Arguably one of the most famous posters "Waterloo Station In War and
Peace" by Helen McKei is documented extensively in the NRM with a
comprehensive collection of drafts and watercolours.
The first posters of the new LMS followed the
examples of its earlier consituents, but they quickly changed. Norman
Wilkinson became the adverrsing manager, and he used members of the
Royal Academy to design its posters. This allowed him to compete with
the LNER. They had a theme of advertising the industries they served,
and the workers on the railway. There were 18 posters in the series.
The Carlisle poster by Maurice Greiffenhagen was particularly popular in
The LNER issued its first poster of York Minster.
This was followed over the next few months by a range of very colourful
posters. Tom Purvis used lots of colour with bold simple designs to get
the attention of travellers. The NRM has a large collection of this
artists work. Beverley is preparing a biography of him and hi work.
Frank Newbold used a series of characatures of animals in the frolics
around the region, and these were identified by numbers designed to
attract people to seek out the full series.
Some of the best advertising was used to stress the
speed of the trains. The first streamlined trains were highly
distinctive and stimulated a lot of publicity. Both the LMS and LNER
also stressed the comfort of their carriages and services offered to
passengers. Several posters highlighted the restaurant sevices -
including the chef and waiters. This was a reaction against the
continuous poor reputation of railway food - for example in 1923 the
Birmingham Post carried a report of the 2000 year-old poutltry found in
Tutenkamuns tomb - and jokingly said that the railway companies had
already tendered for it for their buffet rooms! Whether the new posters
preveted a repeat of such stories is questionable.
In 1948 the four railway companies merged to form
the British Transport Commission. But the holiday poster also made a
welcome return after the wartime austerity, although fewer people were
now travelling by rail.
Southern Railway Special Exhibition
A new exhibition at the NRM is about to start under
the title "South for Sunsine". The exhibition starts with the story of
the merger of the three constituent companies. At that stage King Arthur
class engines, the process of electrification, and stunning viaducts,
were all used to promote the services of the company. The next part of
the exhibition concentrates on "Sunny South Sam" who didn't really exist
by was promoted as a man of the people. The famous poster with the boy
speaking to te engine driver wis also included in the exhibtion. The
boy is Ronald Witt, who emigrated to Canada shortly after the photograph
was taken. Beverley has received at least 10 people claiming to be
that child. The poster was even translated into Italian to convince
pople there that England really was sunny! The middle-years includes
posters of Eastbourn, Ventnor on the Isle of Weight, Brighton and Hove,
and "Sunset over Guernsey". Winter sunshine was also promoted to te
claim that extra sun was available in the south. Hiking was also
promoted, a booklet advised peaple what to do and not to do - such as
not to eat the crops -"you are not a locust!" The final part of the
exhiblition promotes the bathing beauties - from Bournemouth, Brighton,
Devon - and finishes with The Golden Arrow.
During questions we heard that several TV programmes
have been made of the posters and bot the Science Museum and NRM web
sites have samples of the posters. We asked whether Beverley will
produce a sequel t her "Big Four" poster book, for the BR period, but
the choice is not hers, the museum is the one to decide whether to
release the copyright for the posters. Copyright was passed to the NRM
on privatisation in 1995. The new privatised companies are very good at
sending copies of their current posters to the NRM, and if the museum
sees anything which is important to note, Beverley is told. There are,
of course, other forms of advertising e.g. on video, webs, tv and radio,
and there remains a question about how to collect and archive these.
We asked whether there are some gaps in the archive,
and were told that only the GWR kept a full record of its posters, none
of the others did, so it is always possible that something novel will
appear at any time. However, once the posters are found, there are
entered on an index in the museum, all held on computer. So if anyone
comes across something which may be a new find it can quickly be
confirmed by the museum. If you wish to research a particular example,
an appointment can be made to check on any section of the Museum's
Until the 1930s none of the professional artists
wanted to become graphic artists. It was only when the LMS paid 100
guineas for their Royal Academy series that the atists began to wake up
to the possibilities. A recent well-known artists, Terence Cuneo,
established his career as a graphics artists for the then new BR. He
only started to put in a mouse in his paintings in 1953, this was the
series he did for the Coronation. His early railway paintings therefore
do not carry the mouse - so beware if you are "hunting the mouse".