LNER railway poster Scotland
The golden age of the railway posters

The 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 representational art.


The story 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.


The 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.


The artists 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.


Because of 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 Railway Museum 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 Edmond Vaughan.


A famous 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.


Be the first to post a comment.

Previously published:

All 14 blog entries