golden age of the railway posters
interwar period is a fascinating one, not just for its global politics (the
pinnacle of, and the beginning of the end of European global dominance) but
also art-wise. It is a period full of contradictions. For a long time the
official story as taught in art colleges was one of a relentless drive away
from representational art towards the pure abstraction of the post-war years.
It’s just that not all artists of the period fit into that picture, and recent
decades have seen a re-assessment of those that stuck to different forms of
of the inter-war (in between World War I and WWII that is) railway posters fits
in well in this debate. Publicity posters are not pure art in the sense that they
have another purpose: to sell a product, in this case seats on railway
carriages. They have a similar challenge
as do utensils and furniture: to try and be attractive as well as functional.
Edwardians railway companies had commissioned artists and illustrators to
produce posters to advertise their railways and their destinations, but after
the amalgamation of much of the splintered network after WWI, Royal
Academicians were commissioned by the railway companies by enlightened managers
such as Teasdale for the LNER (serving roughly the Eastern half of the
country). This led to much more
adventurous and radical designs, but there was always the knowledge that the
general public had to understand and take to the posters, otherwise there was
no point to spending money on them.
that were commissioned and produced the originals on a large format (40 x 25
inches was not abnormal), attended to the task at hand admirably. They not only created works of commercial art
that are now looked back on with nostalgic eyes, but for the times broke moulds
and saw the British Isles with new eyes, with a new palette and new
sensibilities. Beverley Cole and Richard Durack’s book on the subject (“Railway
Posters 1923 – 1947”) shows many examples from the picturesque and romantic to
the industrial and modernist.
my own preferred subject matter I am myself particularly interested in the landscape
posters by people such Frank Newbould and Paul Henry, but do look up some of
the other artists online or at the National
in York (where
they keep a large collection). There are
industrial and working men’s scenes by Norman Wilkinson, Bertram MacKennal and
Stanhope Forbes, Constructivist posters by artists such as Muriel Harris and
quote by Picasso I think (I’ve tried to verify it but failed) is that “painters make what they can sell, and artists sell what they make”. Whilst a nice quip, the truth has to be
somewhere in the middle surely? I do
think that the artists who designed the classic railway posters rode this
middle track, between individuality and accessibility, very successfully.