West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
Romancing the Rails –
Posters of British Railways
of the lecture given by Charles Harris
on February 24th 2016
As the lights dimmed, the once familiar sound of a
steam train could be heard fast approaching. This was to set the
scene of an incredible journey through the early days of railway travel
and how images of poster graphics reflected the changes in British
society in areas of growth, engineering, science, fashion,
architecture, landscapes and so on.
Charles Harris himself has been involved in the world of global
advertising, design and illustration and has helped famous names such
as BA, Shell, Sony and Qantas to become familiar and recognised the
world over. This became apparent during his outstanding
PowerPoint presentation showing how the artist could paint a dream to
encourage tourists to visit towns, cities and holiday resorts which,
before the age of rail travel, were inaccessible. The
salesmanship had to be in the poster.
Until the 1920s a railway could be built and owned by anybody, but
following the Railways Act of 1921 all the small companies were
amalgamated into 'The Big Four': London Midland & Scottish,
London & North Eastern Railway, Great Western Railway and Southern
Railway and Brunel's broad gauge of 7' was reduced to 4' 8½"
to reduce costs.
Charles acted out an amusing telephone conversation with an imaginary
client, of how a cold, grey windswept beach could be made to appeal to
the holidaymaker - the result of which is the now iconic poster 'Skegness
is SO bracing'. Thanks to the railway and
this poster, Skegness transformed from a little-known seaside town to a
booming holiday destination.
Posters could follow many different themes, active to passive,
whimsical to dramatic and many well known artists contributed, the most
famous of whom were Sir Frank Brangwyn, Dame Laura Knight (the first
woman to exhibit at the RA) and Terence Cuneo.
Rail travel took on an ever more glamorous role with Pullman providing
smart interiors and upholstered seating. The most significant
trains being the Brighton Belle (1881) and of course the Orient
Express. Posters advertised fast journeys across the
country, including the ability to travel onwards to the continent.
These posters are now very rare because print runs were small, just
1000 to 2000 copies and as new designs came out, the old ones were
ripped down and destroyed. They were never designed to last.
The final picture of the presentation was Charles Harris's personal
favourite, 'The Night Scotsman' by Alexeieff, 1930, a simple black
silhouette of the engine.
This was an informative and memorable lecture with a wealth of images
which I much enjoyed.
Many original British Railway posters can be viewed at the Science &
Society Picture Library (select "National Railway Museum" and
search for "posters")