NEW YORK — Evoking glamour, power and a sense of adventure, posters touting trains and railways are one of the most notable subsets of collectible vintage travel posters. The streamlined shape of a train speeding through the night to its destination conjures up images of an impeccably stylish, gone-too-soon past as well as man’s mastery of machines and technology. While most railway travel posters depict a train, some poster designer instead choose to focus on alluring scenery or a legendary place.
Steam-powered locomotives began crisscrossing the landscape in the early to mid-1800s in Europe, North America and Africa, but it was not until about 1890 that travel posters featuring trains began to be printed. These romanticized images of how efficient and luxurious train travel could be did much to market the train companies as well as the tourism and hospitality industries with which they were intertwined.
To learn more about railway travel posters, we consulted with Patrick Bogue, specialist at Onslows Auctioneers in England. He offered his observations regarding the health of the current market.
“If you are lucky enough to find the right railway posters, then there is no shortage of buyers. With the internet auctions, the market has increased massively, and there are not enough good collections coming onto the market to meet the demand,” Bogue said. “Onslows is well known for discoveries of great collections of railway posters. The most notable was a collection of several hundred from the London and North Eastern Railway discovered under the platform of the old Royal Station at Wolferton in Norfolk. The quality and breath of the collection as not been matched since. Back in 1988 when we sold the collection, extraordinary prices were achieved, the sale totaled £200,000. Today the collection would be worth £2 million (approximately $2.5 million).”
Bogue said the most sought-after posters are from the Big Four British railway companies: LNER, LMS, GWR and SR. “The finest designs tend to be from the golden age, the 1920s and ’30s, with beach posters from the best resorts being most desirable,” he said. “The Southport Lido poster with the crème of British society enjoying the then top resort of west coast Britain Southport, is the most valuable of all of LMS posters.”
Designs featuring the great locomotives such as the Flying Scotsman and Mallard are also highly prized. “The best artists to collect would be Tom Purvis, Frank Newbould, Fred Taylor, Austin Cooper and Frank H Mason, if you’re looking to collect posters from the European railways, then A M Cassandre and Rogers Broders,” Bogue added. “They designed some of the best.”
After the First World War, in the early 1920s the British railway companies where grouped together into four main companies mentioned above. “This created great competition to get tourists to visit the resorts served by those companies, so a great boom in advertising started with the Big Four competing for the best designers of the day,” Bogue noted. “The LNER advertising manager William Teesdale won hands down, with the LMS in second place with the Royal Academician artist’s series, a great theme to collect if you can find them.”
One of the most famous poster designers was Adolphe Mouron (A.M.) Cassandre, who created some of the most iconic posters of the Art Deco era. Chief among them is his L.M.S Best Way poster for the London Midland & Scottish Railway. Created in 1928, it depicts a close-up of two gleaming metallic train wheels, transmitting a sense of energy and motion. The poster, which graced the cover of a book on Cassandre, is considered one of his best works. Indeed, in November 2012, Swann Auction Galleries sold a vintage L.M.S Best Way for $162,500, setting a world auction record for any travel poster. More recently, Swann offered another vintage example of the poster in May 2022, which achieved $36,000 plus the buyer’s premium. “He evokes a feeling of vertical and horizontal compression of energy about to be unleashed,” according to the definitive book about Cassandre written in 1979 by Robert K Brown and Susan Reinhold, who detail his mastery of shading, light and geometric forms that serve to emphasize the energy of a moving train.
Nocturnal scenes are especially dramatic, enhancing the sleekness and majesty of these steam-driven behemoths rolling across the land under a moonlit sky. One of the most affecting depictions of this type is Philip Zec’s poster By Night Train to Scotland (shown at top of page), which attained $25,456 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2020 at Onslows Auctioneers. Zec was already one of the leading illustrators of his day when he turned his attention to creating anti-fascist political cartoons decrying Hitler for the Daily Herald newspaper in the buildup to World War II. In this lyrical poster, Zec departs from his usual style and subject matter. Designed in 1932 for the LMS and North East Railway (LNER) to market its night service to Scotland, the poster shows a long plume of smoke rising from the passenger train.
“The Zec poster from the LNER reflects the great era of the sleeper train to Edinburgh,” Bogue said. “Zec’s brilliant design must have been so eye-catching and inspiring on the hoardings. This poster has only appeared for sale on a handful of occasions over the last 40 years. It even sold for £3,000 back in the 1980s — a fortune for a poster in those days.”
Surprisingly, the Art Deco era yielded only a few standout train and railroad posters. Cassandre’s aforementioned example and his poster for France’s Nord Express line would make most veteran collectors’ short lists, but so too would Pierre Fix-Masseau‘s commanding imagery in Exactitude, a 1932 poster which was one of several he created for the state-owned rail company (Etat) in France. An example of Exactitude having only minor creases brought $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2022 at Swann Auction Galleries. This poster keeps its messaging simple through subtle visual cues that emphasize the attributes of the subject matter. There is the foreshortening of a train seemingly just arriving into the station on time (hence the poster title), punctuated by the inclusion of the station clock in the background. Fix-Masseau also employs geometric elements to create a memorable design. The triangular roof of the station is juxtaposed against the squares in the platform flooring and the large circle on the train’s front.
Several railway lines in the United States commissioned promotional posters, including the Union Pacific Railroad, Pennsylvania Railroad and other regional companies. A poster for New York Central Railroad, showing a monolithic train speeding down the track with steam billowing in its wake, sold for $4,500 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2019 at MBA Seattle Auction. Designed by Leslie Ragan in 1938, the poster depicts the new 20th Century Limited train that made the trek between New York and Chicago in 16 hours. The express passenger train, aimed at upper class and business clientele, was in service between 1902 and 1967 and has since gained near-mythic status among train buffs. It was once billed as “the most famous train in the world.”
While most artists and designers focused on the train in their posters, others highlighted the destinations that rail travel promised. In a poster for the New Haven Railroad, Ben Nason created a striking collage-style poster for Martha’s Vineyard, long a family vacation spot. While the railroad obviously didn’t offer full service to the island off the Massachusetts coast, it did offer service to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, at which point a ferry continued the journey. The poster features a ship’s figurehead, and in the background Nason included quaint and colorful gingerbread-style homes, such as are seen on the island, as well as fishing shacks, turquoise-hued water, and, of course, sandy beaches with the requisite lighthouse. A circa-1941 example of the Nason-designed poster earned $5,800 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2022 at Swann Auction Galleries.
Vintage railway posters hold great appeal to collectors, many of whom were born decades too late to ride the trains that are advertised. The posters’ ephemeral nature ensures that surviving examples in good condition are scarce, and their bold and timeless imagery makes them showstoppers and conversation pieces.
Asked if there is a “Holy Grail” waiting to be discovered, Patrick Bogue replied: “Alexander Alexeieff’s 1931 LNER poster ‘The Night Scotsman.’ Today this poster would sell for in excess of $50,000.”