Railway art has always had a strong commercial element.
The very first images of the railways were made for public sale, and as printing processes evolved railway companies also began to produce advertising posters.
Initially very simple, posters grew in sophistication as powered colour printing presses were manufactured in the late nineteenth century, and stations across the country became adorned with posters. They promoted competing routes, like the east and west coast lines from London to Scotland, and the resorts and holiday destinations served by railways.
These first posters were designed by printing firms and were rarely inspirational, but some artists, like Norman Wilkinson, submitted their own images to railway companies, hoping that they would be used. Gradually the quality of railway advertising improved, although some of the slogans stretched the imagination. One poster publicised the ‘Sussex Highlands’, while Grange-over-Sands was described as the ‘Naples of the North’!
Railway posters reached their heyday in the inter-war years. Fine artists, including members of the Royal Academy, were commissioned to produce poster images. They covered a wide range of subjects, although often railways were represented in only the most tangential way as they featured landscapes, historical subjects or sports and pastimes. Where railways appeared graphic artists sold a vision of fast, streamlined trains like the Coronation Scot, but reality was often very different for travellers on suburban services.
By the mid-1960s railways had received a new branding, and were invariably presented as modern and leading change.
Poster artists took an austere approach that matched the mood of the times following the Second World War, but by the mid-1960s railways had received a new branding, and were invariably presented as modern and leading change. Television and other advertising media meant that posters declined in importance, but railway art is still used today as railway companies struggle to forge their own identities on Britain’s fragmented network.