See Scotland by Train exhibition
Jools Stone visits The National Museum of Scotland's new exhibition 'See Scotland by Train, which pays tribute to an age when rail travel within Britain was taking off as a glamorous, aspirational pursuit - and when the heyday of poster art was really coming into its own.
The exhibition displays some 40 posters, most of which get their first public airing, from 1895 right up to 2011. Th first thing that strikes you is that they're in markedly pristine condition. They're also very well displayed. The museum curators have sensibly opted for a simple 'gallery style hanging' in a well lit room, with minimal labelling, so that the interpretation doesn't get in the way of the artworks themselves.
To describe these posters as 'artworks' might seem a little pompous from our modern day perspective, but in fact it's entirely appropriate. The jewels in the crown, such as the posters of Terrence Cuneo's Scotland for your Holidays and Henry Gawthorn's picture of the Forth Bridge, are displayed alongside their original oil paintings. After the railway companies merged to create the 'big four' in the 1923, the train companies sought out the most respected artists of the time. Cuneo was one of these. He went to extraordinary lengths to capture the Forth Bridge, camping out on the bridge in all weathers to sketch the scene which he later painted. The vivid colours and textures bring home the care and pride with which the artists set about their commissions, as do the prominent signatures found in most of these works.
The posters trace a timeline from the 1890s onwards, showing how artistic styles and fashions developed, and occasionally revealing the marketing tactics employed. These are surprisingly evident early on, with a portrait of Sir Walter Scott proudly glaring from the 1896 North British Railway poster promoting 'the Waverley route, the direct and picturesque route from England to Scotland.' Another from 1914 dispenses with artwork altogether and simply compares the 4 day journey time of the 1706 stagecoach with the 7 and a quarter hour train journey of the time. Makes one wonder how much progress will have been made in shortening the journey a century from now.
Soon after the focus switches to artistry, with posters from the 1920s- 50s heralding the golden age of poster art, whether John Mace's vaguely cubic landscape of the Western Highlands from 1930 or the hyper-colouring of Henry Gawthorn's 1934 Fraserburgh beach scene. As we move into the latter part of the century we see the train companies moving away from this aesthetic approach. The posters begin to lose their iconic look and resemble the more humdrum adverts we're used to seeing today.
'The Perfect Escape' from 1985 shows an illustrated map of Britain marked with the tourism sights of the time. In a move which might have pleased some nationalistic Scots, cartography is thrown out the window and the map is grossly distorted, making Scotland look bigger than its southern neighbour. There's a spirited attempt at reviving the artistic style of old with a series of stylised two colour landscapes from the 1990s, but they're clearly no match for their glorious predecessors.
The exhibition goes beyond posters too. There's a film loop which mixes up archive footage from the early days of Scottish documentary cinema – one of the earliest Scottish films from 1897 showed a train journey over the River Tay - with clips from the 39 Steps, Brief Encounter and other classic British movies which feature memorable train scenes. There's also the paint mixer used for painting the Forth Rail Bridge and a number of railway signs, including one which was fished out of an attic and donated just a few weeks before the show opened.
But the vintage posters are undoubtedly the stars of the show. Make sure you catch their appearance while you can, before they get squirrelled away in the vaults until another lifetime.
See Scotland by Train runs until 24 June at the National Museum of Scotland, Chamber's Street, Edinburgh. Admission is free.
Jools Stone is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, working for the Scotsman, the List, Scotland on Sunday, the Train Chartering Company and others. Follow his train travel adventures on his award-winning blog Trains on the Brain and his other trains of thought on twitter: @jools_octavius.