The golden age of the railway is long gone, but the travel posters produced in its heyday are just as popular now as they were then. Of course their purpose has changed. They’re no longer used to promote rail or sea travel. Today we love them for what they are and how they look.
They carry us off over rolling fields, through green valleys, between rocky mountains to sunny beaches under clear blue skies. They tell stories of adventurous rail journeys to new places, of luxury travel on ocean liners, of stylish couples leaning against sleek and powerful automobiles. But they also hark back to fun-filled family holidays. And above all, like all strong advertising, they invite us to join in, to imagine ourselves there, sharing the experience for ourselves.
Perhaps these travel posters remain so popular because they offer a nostalgic view of what seems like a more innocent age, an age when things were simpler than in our virtual online times? The reality of course is that they present an idealized view of the world. The trains themselves, in the age of steam, were unreliable, noisy, uncomfortable and smelly. They belched out black smoke over the same beautiful countryside that the posters depict so appealingly. And the journeys themselves were often tiring, with frequent changes of train required to reach the passenger’s destination. Perhaps that’s the reason why the one thing missing from most railway posters is the train itself!
In the early days of railways – the first half of the 19th century – there were very few posters at all. And those that there were had no pictures – only words. At that time the trains were mainly used to move freight, so posters were only needed to convey information, about timetables or routes.
The one shown here was issued by the Leeds & Selby Railway in England in 1836 and it specifies the permitted dimensions for privately owned goods vehicles carried on the railway.
Pictures came later, in the form of simple woodcut illustrations, as in the excursion poster below issued by the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway in 1846 below. At this stage railway companies were still promoting their own technology so they included a train in the poster, rather than featuring the fun to be had at the destination (the horse racing and the wrestling). In short they were still “selling the sausage” in the mid 1800s. It was not until the early twentieth century, as they became more sophisticated, that they went for “selling the sizzle, not the sausage” – dumping the train itself in favor of the attractions of their destinations.
These text-based posters all but died out by the 1890s. One reason for their decline was that they were very hard to read. They mixed up different typefaces and used rows and columns with no consistency, so the viewer was constantly baffled by what he saw.
At the same time developments in lithography opened up new possibilities for color printing and it was the French who first exploited it in posters. This was the age of the famous Moulin Rouge posters produced by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. (It is rumored that the artist also produced some railway posters, but if he did they have been lost.)
English railway companies quickly caught on as train travel matured and they sought to attract new kinds of customers – the industrial working classes who now had time and money for modest trips from the grimy cities to go on holiday to the coast. These early color posters were still often crude in their use of the new medium, including multiple images and cluttered text, but they were a great improvement.
The French were much more sophisticated, using single strong images to tell a story. Take for example ‘La Plage de L’Entente Cordiale’ (literally ‘The Beach of the Friendly Understanding’) shown here.
A smartly dressed English gentleman offers his arm to an attractive French lady in a flowing dress as they walk along the seafront at Boulogne sur Mer. She smiles coquettishly up at him as he, somewhat flushed, looks out of the corner of his eye at her….. and we imagine that she has just made an outrageous but very appealing suggestion to him……
By the 1930s Britain had caught up, and a new generation of artists – John Hassall, Tom Purvis, Laura Knight, Fred Taylor, Frank Newbould and others – emerged to create a distinctive style of idealised image of Britain. They were unapologetic about their art. They knew that their job was to sell, but they also took pride in the artistic integrity of their work.
Leslie Carr, who produced posters for the Southern Railway amongst others, wrote: The poster has come to stay; it is part and parcel of our twentieth century commercialism. It is the most conspicuous form of publicity, and to my mind should be regarded not only as a means of profit but also a source of pride.
And one of the other leading railway poster artists, J Littlejohns wrote: Some resorts are so unattractive to an artist that he wonders why anyone could endure such a holiday. He is tempted to beautify in a manner that would constitute a fraud, disappoint those he persuaded and discredit his employers. If the general view of the place is unattractive I look for distinctive features which mark it out from other more or less similar places. Charged with producing an attractive poster of Whitley Bay in north east England, he was wrestling with just this problem when he noticed a “romantically located sea bathing pool, forming the foreground of a magnificent view of the coast”. His solution was to feature a collection of elegant swimmers enjoying a swim in the sun, all captured at the ideal time of day, as the sunlight played across the sea into the distance.
These British poster artists were not alone. Artists across the continent of Europe and in North America were also producing commercial travel art of the highest quality, not just for railways but also for cruise liner companies and government tourist offices. If you share our love of the old travel posters – either as an artist or as a collector – check out our blog, where we feature both old and new posters and talk more about their enduring appeal.
© The Great Brunel Railway Company 2014. Poster images courtesy of National Railway Museum / Science & Society Picture Library