The National Railway Museum was formed in 1975 under the terms of the 1968 Transport Act which transferred responsibility for all railway relics held by British Railways to the Department of Education and Science. By bringing together two existing museums, the York Railway Museum and the Museum of British Transport at Clapham in South London, along with the relevant collections of the Science Museum, a new unified national collection was created. The museum occupies land and buildings formerly owned by British Railways.
The oil paintings section of the art collection currently contains some 485 examples. Many of the paintings were inherited from the previous museums when the National Collection was formed. Since 1975 new acquisitions have arrived through four routes: donations by individuals and companies, bequests, purchase at auction or from vendors and, unusually, by direct claim of redundant material from the nationalised railway (since railway privatisation the Railway Heritage Committee continues to assign redundant material to the relevant body).
Original artwork for railway posters makes up the majority of the collection. Before 1923, when railways in Britain were amalgamated into four large groups, poster advertising was quite limited. The period between 1923 and the Second World War is regarded as the ‘Golden Age’ of railway poster design. Several well known artists, for example Norman Wilkinson, Maurice Greiffenhagen, Algernon Talmage and Frank Newbould produced many of these poster artworks. The images were designed to make holiday destinations appear more enticing and were used as part of persuasive marketing campaigns. It is interesting and revealing to compare the original artwork with the finished poster but this is beyond the scope of this publication.
A related, but smaller, collection of original artwork is that for carriage prints. These were intended to be displayed in the interior of railway carriages, hence the long and narrow arrangement, and served the same function as posters. The majority of the works are by the railway specialist Cuthbert Hamilton Ellis.
The museum also holds a modest but important collection of Victorian artworks. Probably the best known are by Abraham Solomon, The Departure: Second Class and The Return: First Class (which give an interesting perspective on Victorian morality), and Going North: King’s Cross Station and Coming South: Perth Station by George Earl. Other good examples are Farewell to the Light Brigade by Robert Collinson and Farewell! by Robert Hillingford here showing the use of railway station scenes to mawkish good effect for events separated by 30 years. Early Victorian seascapes are represented by A View off Harwich by James Burrell and Harwich by F. Molting, collected because Harwich became an important railway ferry port.
Formal portraits form another important group within the collection. Most of these are portraits of senior officers from a variety of railway companies and many examples include interesting clues in the work to indicate which company they were associated with or what their proudest achievements were, for example J. Ramsbottom by William Percy and Francis Trevithick by an unknown artist. Also represented are portraits of the ordinary working man on the railway such as guards or station masters.
Maritime art may appear to be a strange subject for a railway museum to collect. In fact the railway companies in Britain were, at their peak, the largest operator of docks and wharves in the world. There are many fine seascapes and yachting scenes in the collection such as ‘SS Hibernia’ in Holyhead Harbour by Norman Wilkinson, Train Ferry Boat by Walter Thomas and Ireland Overnight by Claude Buckle. To commemorate the contribution of railway ships to the war effort during 1939–1945, railway companies produced artworks of great intensity and some of the best examples of these are the series produced by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (The LMS at War Series). Works such as ‘SS Duke of York’ and Other Ships under Fire, ‘Princess Maud’ and ‘Duchess of York’ Evacuating Troops from St Valery and Sinking of the ‘SS Scotia’ off Dunkirk all by Norman Wilkinson are just some in the series.
In addition the museum holds decorative panels that were displayed in the passenger ferry ships operated by the railways. These usually featured scenes that related to the given name of the ship. Thus one of the panels for the ‘SS Vienna’ depicts St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and one from the ‘SS Prague’ shows a view of the Charles Bridge in Prague.
The National Railway Museum continues to actively collect selected significant works relating to the story of Britain’s railways.
Peter Sturley, Access Team Project Leader, National Railway Museum
Text source: PCF / National Railway Museum
This description was originally written for a catalogue.