Speed to the West: Archive of railway publicity discovered in a London loft

If, like me, you dream of finding a hoard of railway posters languishing forgotten in a disused attic, the following blog post may prove too much to bear. For that is exactly what happened earlier this year when a lady contacted me out of the blue to say that she and her partner had found rather a lot of old posters in the loft of her late father’s west London home, and would I like to take a look ? The discovery turned out to be a stunning collection of over 170 railway posters and original publicity artworks, together with boxes of ephemera and official photographs, dating from the 1930s to the early ‘Sixties.

 Jersey, Adrian Alinson, 1947

Jersey, Adrian Allinson, 1947

The existence of the collection had come as a complete surprise to all concerned and storage conditions were far from ideal. Part of the roof had collapsed inwards, leaving the loft exposed to the elements, and everything was covered in a layer of soot from decades of coal fire smoke escaping from the chimney stack. Yet, remarkably, the collection survived relatively unscathed. So how had it got there in the first place, and where was it from ? 

The loft where the find was made and some of the posters

Further investigation revealed that the lady’s father had worked for the former British Railways (Western Region) Publicity Office at Paddington in the late 50s and early 60s, and almost all of the collection relates to that company and its predecessor, the Great Western Railway. Back then, redundant publicity, including posters, was routinely consigned to the skip, but it seems that this employee had the vision to preserve examples for posterity. A similar story came to light in 2010 when the collection of Malcom Guest was sold at Morpeths Auction in Harrogate. Guest had also worked at Paddington in the Sixties and had saved hundreds of posters from destruction. The foresight of both men is all the more striking as there was little appreciation for railway poster art at the time and much of the material would only have been a few years old – the equivalent of filling your loft with posters from the 2000s and 2010s now. Actually, that’s not a bad idea……

Leamington Spa poster, GWR, 1935 

Royal Leamington Spa, Ronald Lampitt, c.1935

About half of the posters, and all of the ephemera, is concerned with the business of selling leisure travel. Gorgeous designs by the likes of Leonard Richmond, Fred Taylor, Gregory Brown, Norman Wilkinson and Ronald Lampitt extol the virtues of famous British resorts and holiday destinations, including Tenby, Shrewsbury, Jersey, Margate, the Wye Valley, Bournemouth and Leamington Spa. Others proclaim the reliability and modernity of rail travel, best seen in Charles Mayo’s classic Speed to the West (Great Western Railway, 1939) and in the post-war posters of Charles Shepherd and Terence Cuneo.

 David Shepherd, BR poster

Service by Night, David Shepherd, 1955

There are also stern war time notices telling passengers not to travel as well as those celebrating the communal effort of Britain’s dock and rail network in a time of national emergency (all familiar themes in 2020). But it is the range of subject matter that is so truly astonishing, revealing the scale of railway operations eighty years ago. Posters and leaflets for the Railway Air Service survive alongside notices for railway-owned shipping and bus routes. Colourful luggage labels advertise the best railway hotels, while beautifully illustrated menus offer luxurious fare for long-distance travellers. And many more notices, maps, booklets and posters offer direct services to long-closed stations or proclaim the latest improvements to Britain’s extensive railway network.

 Norman Wilkinson, Central Wales poster

Central Wales, Norman Wilkinson, c.1935

Selecting a few favourite items from such a rich collection is difficult, but I especially like the superb Norman Wilkinson landscape poster for Central Wales (one of the few London Midland & Scottish Railway posters in the collection), and the extremely rare and beautiful quad royal design for Jersey by Adrian Allinson. The original watercolour brochure artworks by renowned poster artist Jack Merriott are also especially fine, as is the pre-publication ‘mock-up’ for the Great Western booklet Plymouth to London, full of hand drawn illustrations of places to see along the way.

 Jack Merriott, artwork for The Wye Valley, BR, c. 1950

Artwork for BR brochure, The Wye Valley, Jack Merriott

We will be offering the entire collection for sale in stages from November 2020, with the first selection available to view here. Larger file sizes of all images are available to view on request, and please email me if you have any questions about the collection or any of the original, vintage, posters we have for sale.

Wye Valley, Gregory Brown, GWR, c.1935

Wye Valley, Gregory Brown, GWR, c. 1932

 

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