Shipbuilding on the Clyde - the restoration of a classic Norman Wilkinson poster

For our latest post, guest blogger, poster enthusiast and friend of Twentieth Century Posters, Rodney Ashton, explains how he restored a classic 1930s railway poster from an unprepossessing assortment of fragments into a stunning example of the poster designer's art. 

The poster in question, Shipbuilding on the Clyde by Norman Wilkinson, was originally found in an old railway desk, together with other posters that had been folded and trimmed a long time ago - possibly for display in railway waiting rooms or for sale to the public. This poster, though, was in far worse condition than the others and seemed beyond restoration, until Rodney arrived from Australia to take a look.........


Discovering the poster

It was 1986 when I last visited the UK and although I dabbled in posters back then, my interest in them over the years has stepped up. In late 2023 I was back  to visit my sister and our son in Milan.

I was able to attend the Vintage Poster Market in Peckham and also head on over to Islington and meet David Bownes of Twentieth Century Posters to see how a British vintage poster shop looked and operated. I had the hope of finding a few quintessentially British posters to add to my collection.

The shop was being renovated at the time and looking at photos of it in full flight, I was amazed at how many posters David can fit into a space like that.

David’s knowledge and fascination with vintage posters was evident right away and after a good perusal of what was remaining in the shop during renovations I managed to find two stunning posters, but there was another one that kept making me look at it in its ripped and tarnished state.

Norman Wilkinson's 1933 Shipbuilding on the Clyde lay in a mylar plastic sheet in four ripped pieces on the floor with the lower section entirely missing. It still had a pencilled date written on the top right hand corner, and the title written on the reverse in a contemporary hand.

David showed me a book about the artist and immediately I saw the potential in this motley group of pieces so long as I could source a reproduction of this particular poster in order to copy the missing details.

The Process

After arriving back in Australia I slowly commenced working on the Wilkinson poster. Firstly I deacidified the paper pieces in a bath which also cleans them but retains the patina. I then linen backed the pieces onto 10oz cotton duck canvas and 200 gsm acid free paper using archival wheat starch paste with an acid buffer.

For the first time the image was taking shape with the next stage to source the large piece of text that was missing. Buying a reproduction of the poster was essential to getting it perfect and as this was for my own collection, I could take my time.

Adding the lower section with an acid free piece of paper of similar thickness was the easy part but a coloured wash had to be applied to match the existing white borders. When this was achieved I started the lettering which frankly I found a bit daunting but again, there was no rush.

Usually I use gouache on touch ups and recreated sections (in fills) but I needed to use a non reversible very fine marker for the outer straight lines (cue other restorers gasps) and non archival (cue again) poster paint for the inner sections. This obtained the correct sharpness and black patina.

There were plenty of other in fills of paper and line touch ups to be done but the lettering was a big hurdle to get over.

Restoring this poster made me realise how brilliant and engaging Wilkinson's compositions are, along with his colour sense make him one of my favourite poster artists.

After I cut down the poster from the frame and trimmed the edges I was very satisfied with the result.

The Talk

Recently I did a talk about collecting, restoring and linen backing vintage posters at the Artisans Guild of Australia in Melbourne in a ballroom at an old historical private home called Ravenswood.

My wife Catherine setting up in the ballroom before the audience arrives 

This poster was one of the subjects of my talk that attracted great interest especially from mural painters in the Guild who loved the colourful, graphic but painterly manner of Wilkinson.

Sometimes poster restoration and linen backing can be glorified wallpapering and often that is all that is required but projects like this one make you delve into the artist’s approach to picture making and messaging.

One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to poster restoration and this poster also made me think about what process would be the most respectful.

There is also the question of when to stop the restoration, it may sound strange but the poster really tells you “enough!”

Even my wife is allowing this to hang in our home when it’s framed and that is kudos enough and hopefully a quiet nod from Wilkinson himself.

Rodney Ashton

March 2024


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