Railway posters vs design

It was a long day, watching the Morphets auction.  And as all of those posters went buy, one after another going for way more than the Crownfolio budget, I found myself getting more and more jaded.  Until, by the end of the auction, I was quite glad that we’d only bought one single lot.

It wasn’t just that I was gorged on posters – although the experience was a bit like trying to eat a whole box of chocolates at once.  Seeing so many ‘classic’ railway posters together made me realise that (heresy alert here) the majority of them are not actually great pieces of design.

Of course, your average railway poster does have a lot of things going for it.  Nice watercolours, pictures of pretty parts of the countryside or heritage; a nostalgic vision of a Britain long gone.  A lovely thing to hang on your wall.

But when you look at them as pieces of poster design, it’s hard to get enthusiastic, particularly about the post-war breed.  The typography is average at best, and not integrated into the poster, while the images themselves are hardly cutting-edge illustration.  Of course there are some wonderful posters, like the one below, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

lander english lakes poster auction

In the end – faced with five hundred of them laid end to end at the Morphets auction – it’s hard not to see the vast majority of railways posters as not only safe, but even a bit reactionary.  A nicely drawn vision of a Britain of plough-horses and fields, ancient cathedrals and Georgian towns, and, of course, steam trains.  Easy on the eye, not modern, not threatening – and not much different to buying a Victorian sketch of trees and a few cows to go over the fireplace.

This may seem a bit harsh, but I think it’s fair.  Because the other distinguishing factor of the auction was that some of the more striking and modern posters were the ones that didn’t get the highest prices.  The Lander above (which I love) only went for £300.

And Crownfolio’s only purchase of the whole long day was this.

Bristol poster auction

Which is lovely – and was also one of the only posters not even to reach its estimate.   So perhaps it’s a good thing that railway poster collectors aren’t in it for the design, it may yet still leave a few bargains for those of us who are.

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