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Romancing the Rails –
Posters of British Railways

Report 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' 8"  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.

Julie Rashbrooke

Many original British Railway posters can be viewed at the Science & Society Picture Library (select "National Railway Museum" and search for "posters")