This is a post about the English illustrator, Edward Bawden, and the poster for the Ealing film comedy, The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). It’s also a post about films (culture) and politics in Britain after WW2. As you can see from the poster, the railway engine looms large in the story…so, it’s also a post about trains.
You can watch the whole film on the internet…
Edward Bawden was an English artist and illustrator working in the middle part of the 20C. He attended the Royal College of Art where he was taught by Paul Nash and became friends with Eric Ravilious.
Bawden was an artist who was happy to work across different fields. His style of illustration was derived from his interest in lino-cutting and often features elements of Victorian typography and folk-art. The link to the comic and nonsense drawings of Edward Lear is evident. It was natural, in the circumstances, that Bawden should produce book illustrations, posters and advertising material throughout his career.
Ealing has a special place in the history of British cinema with an association dating back to the earliest days of cinema in Britain. Will Baker established a studio in Ealing at the beginning of the twentieth century. By 1912 the studio was possibly the largest in Europe and certainly the largest in Britain.
Will Baker had begun making films on a Lumiere hand-cranked camera at the end of the 1890s. His first efforts were of the Mitchell and Kenyon topical kind. These films required a minimum of post-production and were therefore economical. At Ealing, Baker’s productions became more ambitious and the studio developed large glazed stages to accommodate the theatrical and historical epics produced before 1920.
The early history of the commercial exploitation of cinema is fascinating. The technology of cinema was developed, more-or-less simultaneously, in France, Britain and America. Business people whose skills were in theatrical presentation, distribution and production succeeded the early pioneers.
In the 1920s there were large industrially organised film production facilities in France, Germany, Britain and the USA. The story of how Hollywood came to global dominance combines commercial ruthlessness, political expediency and ineffective policy-making decisions.
Michael Balcon became Head of Production at Ealing Studios in 1938. The glory-days of the studio date from 1943 through to 1959, when the studios closed.
Films and Comedies
The term Ealing is usually synonymous with a distinctively English form of light-hearted comedy satire. The force of these films comes from them being simple exaggerated extensions, in the tradition of Dean Swift, of everyday realities.
Goodness knows, the circumstances of war, austerity and reconstruction provided plenty of scope for satire. This was especially the case in relation to the extension of state powers in the guise of progress and welfare provision. This extension was often presented as well intentioned but muddled, and as always unlikely to deliver the benefit as planned. Usually, the muddle is resolved by appeal to common sense. Nowadays some of this survives in the concept of the nanny state.
There are probably about six really well known Ealing comedies: Passport to Pimlico (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) and The Ladykillers (1955).
The comedies were not the only films made at Ealing. There are social-realist and police investigation films. But, with one or two exception, it’s the comedies that are remembered.
The story of The Thunderbolt is straightforward. An underused rural branch line is threatened with closure. Railway administrators and unscrupulous bus operators collude in a progressive rationalisation of transport so as to kill off the railway.
The local people are outraged by this plan and gather forces to make their case. In the great tradition of Ealing, the ancient forces of land and church combine. Usually, the local community meet at the local pub. In The Thunderbolt, the forces gather in the restaurant and buffet car!
The posters for these Ealing films are remarkable. The posters were produced, from 1943 onwards, under the direction of S John Woods who reported directly to Michael Balcon. Woods had trained as an artist and graphic designer. He assembled a stable of artists and designers to make posters for the studio’s films. The process was made possible by Woods extensive list of friends and contacts and his ability to match artist and theme.
Some of the artists recruited by St John Woods include John Piper, Edward Bawden, Barnet Freedman, John Minton, Mervyn Peake, Edward Ardizzone, James Boswell and James Fitton.
The Ealing film posters are remarkable on two points. Firstly and against all the odds, they are recognisable works of art by artists whose work extends beyond the usual concerns of graphic design, cinema and fine art. Secondly, they embrace and give expression to the political dimension of satire and social-realism in relation to post-WW2 reconstruction and the prevailing ethos of relentless progress.
The Thunderbolt story was played out across the country through the rationalisation of the railway network in the 1960s.