Brushing up on golden eras of our rail travel

An image of Newhaven harbour with the Forth Bridge in the background
An image of Newhaven harbour with the Forth Bridge in the background
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ANYONE who has ever found themselves crammed into a packed “standing room only” carriage or, worse, stranded on a blustery platform waiting for a train that doesn’t come may struggle to see the romance and beauty of travelling by rail.

Even those commuters who make the daily train journey from Fife to Edinburgh could be forgiven for being slightly jaded by the rattle and shake as their ScotRail carriages clatter over one of the most famous railway bridges in the world.

The iconic Terence Cuneo painting of the Forth Bridge

The iconic Terence Cuneo painting of the Forth Bridge

As for negotiating the construction site that is currently Waverley Station, some may well wonder if letting the train take the strain is now a thing of the past.

Indeed, 30 fascinating railway posters – never previously on public display together – now illustrate just how frightfully exhilarating rail travel once was, from a breathtaking 1952 view of a Gresley A4 Class Pacific Plover locomotive powering its way across the Forth, to a Seventies scene of an excited nuclear family enjoying the attention of a dining car waiter, their car tucked away on the now long-defunct Motorail carriage.

The posters, along with some original artwork and railway artefacts, have been gathered together for the first time for a new exhibition of railway art at the National Museum of Scotland in Chambers Street.

And while the exhibits are a colourful and evocative glimpse at unique periods in railway history, according to exhibition curator, Alastair Dodds, they also offer a fascinating snapshot of changing trends in art and methods of advertising.

The posters span 120 years, beginning with an 1890s example extolling the England-Scotland East Coast route – ironically featuring a scene of Loch Lomond in the background – which loudly highlights the benefits of the “lavatory carriages”, “the dining and sleeping cars” and the added bonus, “heated by steam in winter”.

For the traveller in a mad dash to get from London to Edinburgh, the poster promised the journey could be completed in a breakneck seven-and-a-half hours – compared to around four-and-a-half hours these days.

At the other end of the scale is a bright 2006 ScotRail poster of Newhaven – which, of course, does not even have a train station – along with the peculiar slogan designed to appeal to those seeking peaceful sanctuary, “There’s no gift shop and you can’t buy a T-shirt”.

According to Mr Dodds, principal curator of transport at National Museums Scotland, the trend for art themed adverts was the result of rail companies desperate to use modern printing techniques to encourage passengers “all aboard”.

“It probably came about quite organically,” he says. “There were bill posters which would give details of cancellations to services or the times of new services. Then, in the 1880s, railway companies realised they could do more with them.

“There were new printing methods that allowed nice colourful images. Soon they began commissioning artists to paint scenes for posters.

“The really big change was when all the railway companies were finally grouped together into four big companies in 1923.”

The companies – London and North Eastern, London Midland and Scottish, the Southern Railway, Great Western Railway – now had the financial clout to commission leading artists of the day to paint vivid, often romantic, scenes aimed at encouraging travellers to broaden their horizons.

Among the best known was Terence Cuneo, whose famous image of Edinburgh-born engineer Sir Nigel Gresley’s locomotive powering its way across the oxide-red spans of the Forth Bridge – accompanied by the slogan “Scotland for your holidays” – involved a staggering feat of physical endurance, never mind artistic talent.

“He climbed to the top of the bridge – in fact, he later wrote of his experiences and said he was nearly blown off the bridge,” recalls Mr Dodds.

“When he came off the bridge, he was told the king had died, so we’re able to say to the exact day in 1952 when he did his original sketches.”

Cuneo had perched precariously on a girder high above the track, withstanding gales of over 50mph with frozen fingers and a perilous drop below him. He later recounted: “Working conditions here were frankly terrifying. Although swaddled in a flying suit, duffel coat, balaclava and mittens, to say nothing of long woollen underwear – I was frozen!”

However, the result was a stunning painting, which will hang alongside the poster it spawned and an image of a sketch made at the top of the bridge, forming the highlight of a section within the exhibition devoted to the Forth Bridge.

But while the bridge is an instantly recognisable symbol of Scotland’s railways the world over and features heavily in the posters, there are also fascinating views of other Scottish scenes.

Such as former war artist John Mace’s 1930 view of a tumbling West Highland stream, painted in dramatic, muted shades that contrasts with the vivid colours of a striking Bryan de Grineau poster depicting travel from Scotland’s rival cities in dramatic form.

“It shows two streamlined locomotives, one from London to Glasgow, one the Edinburgh service,” explains Mr Dodds. “On the Glasgow side, there’s a feeling of modernity, forward-looking, the shipyards and industry. And, on the Edinburgh side, it’s the Castle, the Scott Monument and the galleries, so it’s culture and history. A real tale of two cities.”

The 1938 poster is also striking because of its size – a spectacular three metres by two metres. It is thought to be the only example of this particular poster in existence.

“The really big posters didn’t tend to survive,” adds Mr Dodds. “The smaller ones could be folded up and put in a drawer but this was big.” While the posters can be admired simply for their artwork, they also offer an interesting insight into evolving marketing and advertising trends down the years.

“You can see changing styles and clever slogans start to creep in,” Mr Dodds says.

“In the 1978 Motorail one, there’s a family, the waiter is serving their table, it’s corny but it’s very much of its time.

“It was about how you could drive on to a train in the heart of London and it would take you all the way to Inverness at a time when driving would take a very long time.

“The opening of motorways and cheaper fuel meant the Motorail service came to an end in 1995. But you do wonder if it’s worth thinking about introducing it again.”

Among the most eye-catching posters is a mottled view of Waverley Station roof captured by artist Brendan Neiland in 1991 to mark the electrification of the East Coast line and snapped up for the Museum for just £20 on eBay.

“It is fantastic to put this wonderful collection on display for the first time,” concludes Mr Dodds.

“These posters are important and fascinating for many reasons, particularly as a record of the history of rail travel in Scotland and, moreover, as works of art in their own right.”

• See Scotland by Train is at the National Museum of Scotland until June 24. It will be accompanied by a railway film series at the Filmhouse in Lothian Road next month.