Random fact of the day – a painting by the renowned railway poster artist Norman Wilkinson hung over the mantelpiece in the smoking room of the Titanic. Wilkinson, being an acquaintance of the captain, also had a tour of the ship before her tragic maiden voyage.
In his autobiography, Wilkinson (1878-1971) claims to be “the father and mother of the ‘artistic’ poster on English railway stations”. His 1905 poster for the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) stood out amongst its predecessors with a simplicity of design previously unseen on railway hoardings. Wilkinson was entirely unimpressed with the pictorial posters that had gone before, describing them as “an uninspired jumble of small views of resorts… with a good deal of meaningless decoration…” and “quite unintelligible at a distance”.
His design for the LNWR was submitted to the company on spec for approval, and Wilkinson took this chance to do something new. Keeping the text to a minimum, he painted a calm day in the Irish Channel and a small steamer in the distance – which was intended to be true to the small tonnage of the steamer. The Directors of the company were not keen, however, and the design was only used thanks to the efforts of the General Manager Sir Frank Rea. In contrast to the posters that had come before, which were a bit of a puzzle, Wilkinson’s design caused something of a stir in the press.
Although poster design had taken a radical turn in France in the late part of the 19th century with the work of artists such as Jules Chéret and Toulouse-Lautrec, those developments were yet to reach the English railway poster. Wilkinson, however, was a great believer that art should play an important part in advertising, asserting that railway posters could “interest and educate the public and relieve the tedium of what is still probably one of life’s most depressing experiences – a wait in a British Railway Station”.