When I was just five Maude, my nanny, was charged to take me off on holiday to Plymouth. I have no idea to this day why my parents could not go with me, but we were to stay with a relative of Maude’s for a few days. Clearly my parents were staying behind for some special reason, for no expense was spared: we were to travel on the Devon Belle, a short-lived Pullman express as it turned out. As a consequence, I was beside myself with excitement!
At Waterloo, I was allowed to go down to the head of the train to admire the big blue Merchant Navy class engine (so coloured as an abortive experiment by the newly fledged British Railways) and say hello to the driver and his fireman; we were also given a small paper-covered illustrated booklet which I still have. I recall the journey vividly, but apart from being on Plymouth Ho, I cannot remember the holiday at all.
It was not so long afterwards that I saw a very famous poster used by Southern Railway before the war, of a child in almost the same posture as I had been at Waterloo (albeit down at track level), looking up at the crew of ex-LSWR N-15 King Arthur class No. 755 The Red Knight, preparing to head the Atlantic Coast Express. It was memorably captioned in supposedly child’s handwriting, ‘I am taking an early holiday ’cos I know summer comes soonest in the south’. A 1925 black and white version (showing the engine number), was taken from a photograph by Charles E. Brown of 1924 which has ‘South for Sunshine’ below the illustration, and a modified version of the child’s declaration ending ‘….because it’s safer and quicker by rail.’
Today that poster in a sale would be estimated at over £1,500, and the earlier version at around £800. Which tells you that collecting original British steam railway posters is a rich man’s hobby. Yet they combine two elements for the collector: railway history and astonishingly fine work by distinguished artists.
The railway companies which existed in some profusion prior to their grouping into four in 1923, all issued promotional posters of varying types. Some Edwardian ones are only worth £350-450 simply because they’re not especially artistic, yet these early ones are still collected and some can be amongst the least expensive. Yet the most memorable is the 1908 Great Northern Railway image by John Hassall of the ‘Jolly Fisherman’ accompanied by the ‘Skegness is so Bracing’ slogan; an originally will set you back over £2000 in good condition.
From Grouping in 1923 to Nationalisation in 1948 the four companies – Southern, Great Western, London North Eastern and London, Midland and Scottish – really took poster design to new levels, employing a number of very famous artists, including Norman Wilkinson. I mention him, because his first work was in 1905 for the LNWR, but it was his work for the LMS that is most striking. Indeed, his view of the launch of TSS Duke of York brings to mind his wonderful frescoes in the entrance hall of Derby’s Railway School of Transport at Wilmorton, not to mention his work in several famous cruise liners.
Other well-known views include the GWR’s Cornish Riviera posters, Stanhope Forbes’s LMS ‘Permanent Way – Re-laying’ and my favourite, Fred Taylor’s LNER Cambridge showing James Gibb’s King’s College with the Chapel behind. These tend to sell for £1,000-1,250 or above, depending on the artist and indeed the status of the subject. Some can comfortably reach £4,000 in good condition.
The years of Nationalisation were dog days indeed for those of us who were obliged to use the railways regularly, the 1950s and 1960s especially – filthy carriages, abominable time-keeping, out-of-date stock, surly station staff, closures of services and constant strikes – only those over sixty or so will remember them now and smile wryly, whilst those of tender years continue to insist that all the ills of our now much more heavily used railways can be cured by a re-nationalisation, to being run by civil servants and political stooges. Yet in poster-making, dear old BR excelled, notably by employing artists like Frank Sherwin, Leslie Carr, Reg Lander, Claude Buckle and above all Terence Cuneo (1907-1996).
Needless to say it is the latter’s posters which invariably make the best prices, and his genius of draughtsmanship, mastery of composition and facility with oils (not to mention his trade-mark mouse, invariably hidden somewhere in the composition) mark him out as exceptional. At the time I loved his early 1960s view of Clapham Junction, taken in an era when I was going back to school via the Atlantic Coast Express and loving every second of it. His view of Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge at Saltash (painted for BR (W) to mark its centenary) is also most memorable, and £2,000 is around the minimum you might expect to pay for one of his, although we at Bamfords usually estimate slightly worn ones at £500 to £800 (expecting and usually getting better), although his ‘Tracklaying by Night’ poster was recently estimated by Bonhams at £1500-2000 in excellent condition, although the original painting for a poster of the Golden Arrow express, c. 1962 also with them, failed to sell against an estimate of £40,000 to £60,000. Nevertheless, for the original oils, therefore, add noughts!
Yet the inter-war years were a golden age for the railways, for people didn’t go abroad for holidays, they travelled to places in England; they’d go on golfing holidays or shooting to Scotland, eat dinner and sleep on the train, and then get woken up with a cup of tea and kippers in the morning. Accordingly it was a golden age, too, for railway poster art. Another notable example was the colourful and then slightly risqué scene of mainly female bathers advertising the charms of Southport, painted for the LMS in 1937 by the Italian artist Fortunino Matania. Recently one sold for over £10,000.
Yet do not despair, for occasionally railway posters turn up un-noticed in general sales in obscure provincial auctions, usually in less than wonderful condition, and snapping one up for £20 in such circumstances is not unheard of! Failing that, excellent actual sized copies of the originals may be had for around £20 each from several current purveyors.