Art and the railway

Drummond M7 class tank engineTrains play a significant role in my family history, so on a recent trip to York a visit to the National Railway Museum (the world's largest railway museum) was inevitable.

To be able to see and touch the actual engines driven by my grandfather and great-grandfather was immensely moving. The visit was also unexpectedly inspiring from an advertising point of view.

The Art Gallery at the Museum has just launched an exhibition entitled The Art of Advertising. It includes paintings and posters from the NRM Collection, as well as loans from the Tate, Bradford Museums and Galleries, and York Art Gallery. Some of the most memorable images are from the inter-war years, when railway companies competed to entice customers to travel on their lines to reach tourist destinations.

Railway companies started running special trains to seaside resorts in the early twentieth century, making holidays available to many people for the first time. Eye-catching posters of idyllic countryside and famous historic landmarks adorned railway station platforms across the country. The pictures tended to be overly exaggerated, as were some of the slogans. Grange-over-Sands was labelled the 'The Naples of the North'.

The exhibition focuses on an advertising campaign launched by the London Midland & Scottish Railway Company (LMS) in 1924, when they took the unusual step of commissioning 16 artists from the Royal Academy to produce their posters. Some of the artists stuck to the traditional 'tourist-style' that had evolved in the 1880s, when a typical railway poster would feature a highly romanticised landscape. These new poster designs would have looked old-fashioned at the time they were created.

Other artists took the opportunity to try new techniques, and the exhibition looks at the effectiveness of taking a fine art approach to poster design. It was certainly fascinating to see the artists' original canvasses displayed alongside the resulting posters.

As well as tourism, carrying freight for industry and connecting cities was crucial to the railway business. To illustrate this, the LMS commissioned posters of industrial scenes and cityscapes. Artists faced the challenge of how to portray subjects not usually depicted in art. They responded by producing powerful images of industrial landscapes; the accompanying words portraying Britain as a commercial force to be reckoned with.

I thought the paintings of power stations, coal mines and steelworks were the most striking pictures on display at the exhibition. The whole tone and language of these posters was in stark contrast to the rose-tinted depictions of castles and seaside resorts. They conveyed strength and a certain bleakness.

When the country once again faced the prospect of war, posters became more austere to match the mood of the times.

My grandfather started as a steam train driver in the 1930s and became a motorman on South Eastern electric services during the war. In May 1940, he reported to work and returned home five days later. He'd been collecting the troops evacuated from Dunkirk. At that time, in the West Country, my great-grandfather was still driving a Drummond M7 class tank engine on the line from Exeter to Exmouth. The M7, number 245 (as shown in the photo) is on display at the museum and was based at Exmouth Junction in the late 1940s. It would have been one of the engines driven by my great-grandfather.

After the war, posters that celebrated the romance of steam were replaced by ones promoting the speed of the new electric trains, although many steam trains were still in use across the country. My great-grandfather retired in the early fifties while many of the M7 class engines lasted in service until 1964.

By the 1960s, railway posters were in decline as television and other media became increasingly popular. Today, those early posters are remembered with affection and often recreated in nostalgic advertising campaigns.

A new exhibition opens at the NRM Art Gallery in February 2012 entitled Fear and Fascination: Art from the Dawn of the Railways. The sheer scale of the earthworks necessary to build the original railways transformed the landscape of the country and inspired awe and anxiety in people who had never witnessed anything of that magnitude before.

The Gallery promises to feature historic images and rare works of art in a collection of the earliest paintings, cartoons and drawings, illustrating the advent of the railway in Britain. It should be fascinating and worth another trip to York.

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