COLLECTING : Drawn towards steam

The posters produced in rail's golden days have far more than nostalgic appeal. Nicholas Faith reports on an auction of the industry's brightest
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WITH the railways carved up and poised for privatisation, it's easy to feel nostalgic for the golden age of the train. Even if the nearest you've been to trainspotting is Danny Boyle's film, the names of the old railway companies - Great Western Railways (GWR), London Midland Scottish (LMS), London and North Eastern Railways (LNER) - remain as evocative and romantic as ever. Artists working for the railways between the wars didn't have nostalgia on their side. They had to find other ways of making people travel by train. Some depicted landmarks accessible by rail, others advertised seaside attractions or industrial centres. In 1927, Austin Cooper used the lure of punctuality; his poster boasted that 87 per cent of suburban trains out of Liverpool Street ran on time, or less than two minutes late. Austin Cooper's is one of nearly 300 railway posters on sale next Thursday at Onslow's, a small firm based in Chelsea which specialises in auctions with a transport theme. Its annual maritime sales attract enthusiasts willing to bid for even the tiniest scrap of paper having any connection with the Titanic. Railway posters, too, attract their share of anoraks. True aficionados collect them because they depict memorable moments in railways history; the less fanatical are attracted by the posters' artistic merits. Because the railways were the richest indust rial patrons of their day, many of the works they commissioned were by the most popular, and in many cases the best, artists. The work they produced formed a rare bridge between the artistic world and the public, who bought hundreds, or even thousands of copies of the posters. The top lot in Thursday's sale, expected to reach up to pounds 15,000 (a record for a railway poster), is an abstract work by the Russian-born artist Alexander Alexeieff (right). Best known as an animator, he would be of no interest whatsoever to rail bu ffs. Many of the higher estimates - from pounds 1,500 to pounds 3,000 - are for posters more interesting for their content than their artistic charms. For instance, only a real rail buff would consider Tom Purvis's picture of LNER's four streamlinedtrai ns (below right) to be worth the pounds 5,000 estimate. Onslow's first sale of railway posters, in 1984, virtually created the market in a previously neglected art form; it set off a price-rise spiral which is sure to be given another twist this week. The sale's content clearly demonstrates the progress of ra ilway-poster art from the 1920s to the 1950s, before the photographer finally took over from the commercial artist. Further interest will be added by the fact that the proceeds will go to an unnamed "children's charity overseas". The collection has also arrived in the saleroom by a curiously romantic route - it was a hoard discovered by the widow of a BR engineerwhen she was moving house. From a historical and artistic point of view it is important, too, because it consists mainly of posters commissioned by William Teasdale who, as the imaginative advertising director of LNER, was an unsung artistic patron. The London and North Eastern Railway was one of the four groups into which Britain's hundreds of smaller railways were merged in 1923, in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to make them profitable. It was the one with by far the best thought-out policy , as far as advertising was concerned (by contrast, the Great Western - though hymned to this day as God's Wonderful Railway - was notably unadventurous). The London Midland and Scottish (LMS) commissioned Royal Academicians to produce individual posters , but Teasdale went further; he put five of Britain's best commercial artists under contract, for sums up to the equivalent of pounds 50,000 a year. Teasdale contrived a nice balance among the artists under contract and avoided too much typecasting, though Frank Mason concentrated on marine subjects and Fred Taylor was best known for his charming architectural posters, including a famous series of "A rchitecture Through the Ages". Austin Cooper and Frank Newbould covered a variety of subjects while Tom Purvis was the most appreciated of the five, praised (we might say over-praised) for his simplicity, his ability to reduce the most complicated subjec ts to the barest outline. Teasdale's commissions were not confined to the Famous Five, however. He used other commercial artists, as well as well-known painters like Norman Wilkinson, Doris Zinkeison and Frank Brangwyn. He made a conscious effort toinfl uence the company's overall visual style, going so far as to commission a clear and dignified typeface - LNE Railway Gill Sans - from Eric Gill. Teasdale was a true professional, always conscious of the aim of the advertising. In one speech he admitted his most difficult job was "digging out from a vast organisation the best selling points". He was not trying to impress, however, merely to sell. As he wrote in one of his exhibition catalogues: "The LNER is selling transportation to about 390 million people per annum. It is tying to increase its sales. It is not intended to be a picture show. Each picture is designed as an advertisement - tocatc h the eye, the imagination, the pocket, of people of all kinds." The works Teasdale commissioned are strong, direct and simple - ideally suited to catching the transient eye of the rail traveller. Virtually all of them, apart from the one by Alexeieff, were realistic in nature. In a book he wrote about poster design, Austin Cooper emphasised "fitness to its purpose" as well as "simplicity and clarity". He also stressed the contrast between his own realistic school and the "abstract" designs of the French artist Cassandre (best known for his visionary posters forthe Chemins de fer du Nord), though even Cassandre was firmly a poster artist, not an artist who designed posters. He distinguished between a painting, which was "an end in itself", and a poster, which was "only a means to an end, a means of communication be tween the dealer and the public, like a telegraph". The variety of the LNER's services and destinations - from Essex commuting lines to glamorous long-haul trains like the Flying Scotsman - provided Teasdale's artists with a wealth of opportunities. The catalogue to next Thursday's sale gives a partial li st of subjects: "beach scenes, seaside resorts, golfers, towns and cities, abbeys and cathedrals, architecture, famous landmarks, historical subjects, special trains and services, industry, ports, harbours and ships, areas of outstanding natural beauty, also some Continental resorts and cities". One subject missing from the list is LNER's finances, yet Austin Cooper managed to transmute even the bare statement that LNER paid its signalmen pounds 1,831,641 a year into a striking image (below, far right).

The quality of Teasdale's commissions can best be appreciated by comparing the results with other posters in the sale commissioned after the war by the nationalised British Rail. BR relied on artists like Terence Cuneo, whose crude Boy's Own Annual style has its admirers. To be fair, his best work - such as the signal box "On Early Shift" - is at least decently coloured and realistic. More typical of BR's style is a garish poster featuring the blonde and busty prototype of Essex girl. Even that could fe tch pounds 200.

! Onslow's sale of railway posters will be held at the Carisbrooke Hall, 63-79 Seymour Street, London W2 on Thursday (21 March) at 2pm. Details from Onslow Auctions, Metrostore, Townmead Road, SW6 2RZ (0171 371 0505).