Evaluating British Railway Poster Advertising: The London & North Eastern Railway between the Wars

Article excerpt

This article interprets sixteen inter-war pictorial railway advertising posters and evaluates their likely effectiveness as marketing tools for increasing train travel. In doing so, it seeks to contribute to our understanding of how pre-nationalisation railway companies functioned as businesses and how they represented themselves to the public. No records were found that would enable the posters' effectiveness to be measured; the most abundant source materials are the posters themselves, and a qualitative analysis of their content, carefully contextualised, forms the basis of this evaluation.

Using posters as source material presented challenges of selection and interpretation. Their survival has depended partly on chance and, as prenationalisation railway companies appear not to have kept details of each one they produced, it has not been possible to obtain a representative sample. So an alternative selection process was used. The posters evaluated here were produced between 1923 and 1939. Modern marketing techniques began to be used in the 1920s, justifying the use of modern criteria against which to evaluate them.1 Similar reasoning underlies the choice of posters produced by the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER). Soon after its creation in 1921 the LNER 'established a reputation for producing exciting and innovative work . . . [and] set a standard in poster design that none of its rivals could match'.2 The company also demonstrated continuity in poster advertising policy: both its inter-war advertising managers, William Teasdale and Cecil Dandridge, valued the medium and contributed to debate over its development.' Thus the LNER seemed the most likely pre-nationalisation railway company to produce effective advertising posters. The posters evaluated all advertise Yorkshire, although not all do so exclusively. In observing the choice of locations from this county's considerable landscape variety4 - and it was the LNER's advertising manager who made that choice5 - surviving posters should indicate the sort of traveller being targeted. Those advertising specific localities were avoided to ensure that the LNER was in sole charge of their production. Railway companies often marketed towns jointly with councils6 and, although the LNER was probably the dominant partner in such agreements,7 the possibility of council influence on design or choice of artist cannot be discounted. Lastly, to keep the sample manageable, analysis was restricted to posters available at the National Railway Museum (NRM) depicting inland Yorkshire (Figures 1-16).

The second challenge is that there is no single, widely accepted technique for interpreting visual imagery.8 Most studies of posters have adopted what might be termed a 'commonsense' interpretive approach (i.e. one based on figurative conventions), situated within the context of art and design history.9 The problem with conventions, such as those that enable us to 'read' visual images, is that they naturalise social constructions.10 This can make them difficult to interrogate critically. To paraphrase Rodney Barker, the commonplace is the greatest defence against change - not what is considered essential, but what is considered obvious.11 It is necessary, therefore, to engage with the processes of the construction of visual meaning and the power relations that influence them.12 Several studies of post-1945 advertising imagery do this," but most studies of railway posters do not.14

The interpretive method employed here uses Umberto Eco's interpretation of Peircean semiotics as a way of understanding the construction of visual meaning." Semiotics may be defined broadly as the study of how meanings are made. It is, in Eco's terms, the study of sign functions.16 A sign function is a relationship, based on substitution, between a signifier (which stands for) and a signified (which is stood for). The process by which sign functions are created, that is, by which a particular signifier is linked to a particular signified, is called semiosis. …