Odds and Ends: Book Review - Railway Posters: 1923-1947
In between high school and college, I spent two years serving a mission for my church in England. For about 6 months, I lived in the great city of Norwich and became good friends with an older gentleman named John Vicary. He had a love for traditional English trifle and local history and he generously shared both with me and my missionary friends. He wasn’t a wealthy man at all, but he had collected an extensive library. I don’t know if he pointed it out to me or if I found it on his shelf myself, but it was through John that I was first introduced to the creatively titled Railway Posters: 1923-1947, a book dedicated to the art of the travel poster in its heyday. I was in awe! The book was filled with the most beautiful art you'll never see in a traditional art museum, all captured in the form of a poster, all used to promote one thing: travel. I poured over it every time I visited his apartment and, before I moved, he bought me my own copy. John passed away about 15 years ago. I will always remember him with great fondness and his gift will always be one of the treasures of my own library.
What are railway posters and what makes them so interesting? Before the reign of popup ads and spam texting, people used less intrusive ways to get people’s attention. In some cases, marketing was even elegant. Such was the case of railway posters in England pre-WW2. Railway companies, and there were four main ones operating between 1923 and 1947, would employ some of the best commercial artists in the country to try to encourage urban dwellers to take a trip and see the beauty that Great Britain had to offer. Eye-catching posters were the best way to promote those trips and they were everywhere. Surprisingly, the art of the railway poster was appreciated in its time. Maybe not by art critics (it was commercial art after all - ba humbug!), but definitely to the general public. Speaking of the railway poster specifically, Francis Goodricke, marketing expert in the early 20th century, said, “If, for a moment, it could be supposed that the pictorial posters had no advertising value, their decorative value alone would justify their production.”
I had already been introduced to railway posters by the time I met John. Convenient stores in England often sold postcards featuring railway posters and I had started collecting. But Railway Posters showed me just how treasured this artistic heritage was in the country. And, of course, it showed me so many more examples in one place and also introduced me to a variety of illustration styles that still influence me today. The early 1900s were the age of the illustrator and, like their American counterparts, these railway poster artists became fairly influential in their time. But, sadly, most have been lost to history. I have many favorites, but I only know them by name. When I tried to research them more, I mostly found dead ends. That makes this book all the more valuable to me. Great artists shouldn’t be forgotten…and I don’t want to forget these ones.
Since being introduced to Railway Posters the book, specifically, and vintage travel art, in general, I have been greatly influenced by them. And at least one world of Wits End owes a lot to travel posters. This old advertising medium absolutely inspired much in the Smoking Bones Travel Company world. It not only sparked some of the concept, but is part of its execution as well. Travel posters will play a role (minor one at least) in the world and I’ve already started creating official SBTC travel posters that will shortly be available to add to your travel art collection.
I can't explain exactly why these railway posters dazzle me so much, but I'm glad that I discovered them. I hope that by bringing them into my Wits End worlds, its a way I can pay homage to a lost art and its great, but forgotten, artists.