They were full of harmony, blue skies, green hills, holidaymakers and freedom. A vision to catch the eye of the general public, long before the days of PCs, colour television and social media. Here for all to see was a glimpse of Utopia, created for the British public by the great industrial giants of the age.
The railway poster arrived just at the right time for the new-found freedom to travel, enjoy leisure and indulge for a while. The "Big Four" railway companies, Great Western Railway (GWR), London Midland and Scottish (LMS), Southern Railway (SR) and London North Eastern (LNER), were expanding and competing for business and passengers, and so advertising their product took on a huge significance; the railway poster heralded a new dawn and a "Golden Age" of travel for the masses.
The first piece of creativity took place in 1908 with GWR. One of its clerks, in Swindon, who may have had nothing better to do at the time, was fiddling around with a map of Cornwall and noticed that if you turned the county upside down and over, there was a passing resemblance to Italy. This innovative, but perhaps a little dubious discovery, led to the slogan of "There is a great similarity between Cornwall and Italy in shape, climate and natural beauties". The Cornish Riviera was born, with a colourful image on tinplate appearing on platforms throughout London.
GWR, with its trains travelling along the lines to Bristol, Somerset, Wiltshire, Gloucester and Devon in the West Country, laid out the ground rules for future posters. Whether tinplate or paper poster, there had to be a "mission, tell a story at a glance and excite interest". The posters were, in fact, the first marketing campaign and GWR was well in front of the others.
Southern Railway, which had services to Bath, Bournemouth, Salisbury and Exeter, was slow to take up this spread of advertising with posters. Before 1920, its posters made little impact. SR's general manager at the time was Sir Herbert Walker, and determined to change this, he was the first of the big four to create a specific role for one of his senior staff, that of head of public relations and advertising.
SR then began to catch up rapidly with GWR, and pulled off a major success over its rivals with posters depicting Paris and the train "Golden Arrow". Based at Waterloo Station in London, artists such as Edmund Vaughan, Charles Shepherd and Helen McKie came up with the first "modern-style" artwork, showing the Dorset Coast, Bournemouth Belle, cheap day returns in third class for 15 shillings and the Devon Belle, with its "new" all-Pullman train to the west of England.
By 1925, all the railway companies were employing publicity agents. Each by now was developing a style for itself. GWR produced its themed "Cornish Riviera", warm and relaxed, with a Mediterranean feel. LMS came out with images of the workforce and historic scenes. Carlisle, depicting an armour-clad knight on horseback, sold in huge numbers from newsagents on their platforms. This was memorabilia to be collected and displayed at home.
LNER, employing artist Fred Taylor, showed York Minster, the Forth Bridge and Piccadilly Circus. Railway Magazine congratulated the artist and the company for the excellence of the displays. Reprints of photographic work by commercial photographer Charles Brown had a huge following. His SR coloured image of a young boy talking to the engine driver of the King Arthur at the end of Waterloo Station led to over 3,000 copies being framed and sold. French, German and Italian copies followed, with the Red Cross using the poster for fundraising as well. The young boy in the advert, Ronald Witt, achieved celebrity status. Fifty years later the poster was still being reproduced for British Rail's Inter-City services.
Towards the mid-1930s there was a move away from the landscape theme of the posters.
The age of the "dramatic" picture had arrived with professional advertising agents insisting it was necessary to tell the travelling public in a more modern way of the big four's services, and make use of the daily newspapers.
Artists like Charles Baker, who came from Ilminster, Somerset, and Leonard Richmond, who topped the class at the Taunton School of Art, were commissioned to provide posters. Tom Purvis, the Bristol-born advertiser, was taken on by LNER, having previously worked for the Ministry of Supply. Dora Batty, who worked for GWR, was from Dorset. She had previously been a designer for Poole Pottery. The advert was now the way forward.
"Speed to the West", from GWR, showed the King George VI locomotive hurtling to Somerset. SR produced the poster of the Bournemouth Belle and the Pine Express. Puzzles, postcards and books centring on the posters appeared. Collectors' items for all, even the occasional mistaken ones, like the "Lake District of Surrey", quickly withdrawn but highly sought after as a prized item.
"Smiling Somerset" was introduced for Weston-super-Mare, "Sunny Gem" for Clevedon, "English Athens" for Bath and "Downs and Forest" for Marlborough. GWR brought in its café-restaurant carriage. Humorous-style pictures began, particularly for the seaside resorts, where relaxation and enjoyment were now king, and popular culture, like the bathing beauty, began.
Advertising could now just about explain anything to anybody, all within seconds, and entirely led by the railway companies. Coast and countryside, all for John Citizen, and barely a motor car in sight.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, advertising hoardings were cleared for more urgent notices, like direction to the nearest air raid shelter, and government posters themed around "Food, Fuel and Shells Must Come First". GWR and SR continued with their pictures, albeit with a much more patriotic tone, and subject to paper rationing. The Union flag fluttered above a steam train with the logo "In War and Peace – We Serve".
Just three years after the end of the war, the railways were nationalised. There had just been enough time for the companies to bring some kind of normality back to their posters. GWR showed views of Plymouth, with none of the bomb damage, and a headline that put people at ease while rebuilding started, "The Spirit of Drake Lives On".
Six regions formed the new British Railways on January 1, 1948. There was new branding, livery, logos and signage. Posters continued as before, but they began to take on the leisure-like look, rather than that of a work of art. "See Britain By Train" and "Travel By Train To Bristol", for example, with a view of the Avon Gorge and Clifton Suspension Bridge.
One of the most idyllic posters came out in June 1948 for the Western Region: a view of Somerset that showed timelessness, hedges, thatched roofs and not a railway line in sight.
By the 1970s, of course, the railway, now much decimated by the Beeching cuts, was not the only way to travel, least of all when going on holiday. Posters continued, such as for the Inter-City Services, pop group Abba with "Keep Your Station Tidy" and the, now, wretched Jimmy Savile with "Cheap Awayday Returns". But the "Golden Age" was over. Today passengers are more likely to see a "Penalty Charge " or "Sorry For The Inconvenience" poster, containing as much artwork as two worn out torch batteries.
Permanent sunshine, beautiful coasts, idyllic countryside, those images brought by the railway poster have now entered the world of nostalgia, but the fond memories can never be taken away. If anything they still capture our imaginations – after all, that is what advertising is supposed to do.