Stanhope Forbes’ poster ‘The Permanent Way’ is unusual among railway posters in that it doesn’t show an idyllic holiday destination or stylish engine whooshing through a scenic landscape. It shows the railway workers who kept the lines running; laying, checking and relaying track. It shows the men moving a rail into position while a train moves towards us, about to pass a signal box and the group. The combination of people in the foreground – eight or ten men, struggling to move the rail into the correct position, themselves carefully aligned with the rails and the line of perspective diminishing towards the back of the poster – and the train speeding towards the viewer, gives the poster depth and energy, and the lookout in the front right of the poster serves to draw the viewer into the scene.
Forbes designed the poster for the London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS) in 1924. The LMS had commissioned 16 Royal Academy artists to make posters for their new campaign, the brainchild of acclaimed poster artist Norman Wilkinson.
A set of photographs from the LMS official collection gives us a unique insight into the production of the poster. One photograph shows the artist at work with his sketchbook, and others record the scenes and people he was sketching.
The photographs show that the poster is a composite of elements which Forbes sketched from life. Forbes recorded the details of the workmen, their faces, clothes, posture, as well as keeping small details such as the chalk writing on the rail lifter and the inspector with coat draped over arm. In other places he employed artistic licence, shortening the coat of the lookout, adding in the factory to the right hand side, the oncoming train. The setting seems to have been changed to make the scene more interesting, with the preferred location also photographed – although not as yet identified, suggestions appreciated.
I’d love to be able to see the pages of that sketchbook; to see how those initial observations evolved and grew into the poster that was presented on the hoardings. Here are some more of the photographs showing the scene that Forbes was sketching that day.