A growing number of poster collectors are staying in the holiday spirit, all year round
From bathing beauties at British seaside resorts to exotic destinations reached by air and by sea, illustrated posters celebrated the very best in travel destinations during the early 20th century.
Among the first to use them were the British railways, with lines such as Great Western (GWR) and London and North Eastern (LNER) commissioning established artists to produce large-scale works.
Bright, bold and eye-catching, they were easily spotted from across a busy station and according to Ed Bartholomew, lead curator at the National Railway Museum in York, could advertise just about anything. “They captured everything,” he says about what the railway was and could be, from where to place your factory to the ‘essence of a place’ at some of the UK’s most prized holiday resorts.
While their purpose was undeniably commercial, it could be difficult to tell. “Sometimes the only connection with the railway you will see is in the logo,” says Ed, and, like any other medium, “it was the poster artist’s goal to get their art seen”.
Esteemed artworks in their own right, the posters can be seen today in regular auctions throughout the UK, including large auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and Onslows in Dorset, who hold two online sales each year. Their most recent auction, in December 2017, saw a 1947 Southern Railway poster by Helen McKie fetch £3,500. The posters also sell abroad, and in 2014, Swann Galleries in New York is reported to have sold one for $20,000 depicting a night train from London to Scotland.
Like any collectors’ items, there are a number of factors that influence price. Earlier posters from around 1880 to 1950 tend to attract the greatest sums due to their unique printing technique. Stone lithography, used to produce the poster’s detailed finish, only allowed for limited print runs (usually 500 to 3,000) before the stone was ground down to make a fresh, new design. With such limited production you gained a much rarer product and these generally demand a much higher premium at auctions today.
The artists themselves also affect value, with Austin Cooper, Alex Fraser and Tom Purvis among those producing some of the most iconic designs. Purvis, who is said to have designed over 100 posters for LNER, was particularly famous for depicting resorts and leisure activities, using simple silhouettes and bold colours. Cooper had a more diverse style and covered everything from humour to detailed landscapes and expansive city scenes.
Railway posters are not the only type of travel poster on offer: ski resorts, in particular, are increasing in popularity, with a 1952 Russian print selling for £30,000 in 2008. While a British railway poster can’t, to date, compete with such a price tag, they still hold important historical value and allow you to see Britain at the height of her heyday in sunbathed glory.
Old LNER railway poster promoting Whitley Bay; Old LNER railway poster; Scarborough 1920s poster promoting travel to the English seaside resort
Old LNER railway poster promoting Cromer in Norfolk