This is a post about the railways and lithography. It’s also about the relationship between between industry and printing and communication. Specifically, it’s a post about railway posters.
Some of you will know that I am interested in the history of posters and the development of graphic design. The industrial development of the railway, and its social impact, played important roles in supporting the graphic development of the poster. There’s quite a lot about all this in my book, Modern British Posters (2010).
The poster emerged, during the 1860s and subsequently, because of a number of pre-conditions. These were mostly technological, environmental and sociological.
Untangling the cultural convergence that allowed the poster to flourish is complicated…
The invention of the modern poster is usually associated with Baron Haussmann’s modernisation of Paris. Haussmannisation was a process by which the city was remodelled so as to provide wide vistas, avenues and secure buildings. The new environment was conceptualised to facilitate the safe movement of people and goods. The continuous dynamism of the metropolis was understood as an expression of democratic energy, enterprise and freedom. It was no co-incidence that Haussmann’s plans for Paris were made at precisely the time that the railways arrived in the city.
In London, the railway boom of the 1840s had provided for a new kind of architecture that combined engineering, materials and machine to create an environment of dynamism on an unprecedented scale.
The new spectacular reality, facilitated by the new architecture of the railway, in London, and by Baron Haussmann, in Paris, was increasingly defined through space formed by the spans and apertures of megastructures. The railway terminus, for example, was predicated on movement and more-or-less demanded a new form of visual communication. Accordingly, the poster was distinguished by the characteristics that allowed it to be seen from a distance and at speed!
In addition to the obvious economic motives, the poster also needed a new kind of printing process. This post explains the development of lithography as crucial in facilitating the poster and in helping the railway.
Lithography is a kind of magic – it’s a process that allows a print to be taken form a flat surface…
Let me explain
The modern poster was immediately recognisable: it was big, brightly coloured, and made a virtue of being visible.
The poster’s characteristics of colour and scale are important because they were made possible by the development of lithography. The traditional forms of printmaking – intaglio and relief – require special carved or engraved plates. These are expensive and precious. In both traditional forms of printmaking, the engraved plate is literally pressed into the paper. If you examine the old kinds of printing press you can see the great levers that turn force into pressure, and pressure into image.
If you think about the physics of the traditional printing press, you will realise that the pressure needs to be applied evenly across the plate to achieve a pleasingly uniform impression. The engineering of the traditional letterpress machine (an elaboration of Guttenberg’s original press) applies pressure to the centre of the plate rather than distributing it across the whole plate.
In these circumstances it’s obvious that, when printing beyond a certain size, the forces required will tend to destroy the plates! The more pressure is applied at the centre, the more the edges will have a tendency to lift. Accordingly and for entirely practical reasons, there were clearly defined limits to the scale of printing possible by traditional methods. In the end, you just couldn’t print economically in the very large sizes required for posters.
So, a first pre-requisite of poster printing was that the process should require less pressure. A light contact between plate and paper ought to be sufficient, without force, for the transfer of image to paper. The reduction in the mechanical forces of the printing process allowed for the elaboration of a much larger printing surface.
Traditional printing has used wood and metal as surfaces from which prints could be taken. The workshop environments of printing required materials that were both refined and hard-wearing – especially if they were to survive printing large editions.
In 1796, Aloys Senefelder discovered that a print could be taken from a flat stone surface. Stone had a the great advantage of being hard-wearing and robust. Furthermore, it could be prepared so that very large prints could be made. In the end, the size of the print became limited by the lifting machinery needed to shift large lumps of stone.
Senefelder hadn’t been thinking, at the end of the 18C, of printing posters. He had developed his lithographic process to facilitate the publishing of sheet music and orchestral parts and of dramatic texts. The process works by exploiting the fact that oil and water do not mix. Because drawing is always less expensive than engraving, and because drawn plates can be wiped clean and reused; lithography was immediately attractive as a commercial process.
The process dramatically reduced the cost of printing non-standard visual elements.
The basic elements of the process are described below,
• the print is prepared so that a design is drawn (transfered) by litho artists onto the stone using a grease crayon
• coloured ink is then applied with a roller to the surface of the stone
• the grease holds the ink whilst it is washed away, with water, from the rest of the surface
• when paper is brought into contact with the surface of the stone, the image is transfered onto the paper
• by combining printings of separate colours a full-effect “chromo” lithograph can be made
You can demonstrate the idea of lithography simply with card, candle, water and ink. The demonstration also shows the problem – there’s so much water involved that the card disintegrates quite quickly…
The conceptual simplicity of lithography masked a number of technical difficulties. These were resolved so that the process became quicker and so that a large variety of effects became possible through the understanding of colour and over-printing.
Power was applied to the press and to the management of ink and paper. Eventually, the flat-bed horizontal action of the early presses was turned into a fast-spinning rotary action, with offset rollers keeping stone and paper apart.
By the end of the 19C, complex colour prints could be produced quickly in large editions.
During the 1920s, poster design became more economical. This was achieved by the brutal simplification of the image into a reduced number of colours. Each colour could be rendered as a flat 2D shape.
A number of poster designers were associated with this flat-colour style – Tom Purvis, Frank Newbould, Fred Taylor, Frank Mason and Austin Cooper. All these artists worked for the London and North Eastern Railway.
The 19C railway companies were enthusiastic supporters of print culture. Beyond the traditional letterpress printing of rules and conditions of travel, they produced a multitude of printed ephemera. This included timetables, tickets, labels, books, pamphlets and posters. The bigger railway companies supported a local print economy so that the growth of the railway and it’s associated printers were combined.
The economic exploitation of the railway demanded that the capacity of the system be used efficiently and to the maximum. It was natural, in these circumstances, for railways to begin advertising their services for passengers and freight.
The railway companies quickly realised that they had a convenient estate of display sites across their station platforms and began to seek advertising clients for the poster display sites on their stations.
In addition to the usual commercial advertisers promoting their sausages, biscuits, tea and other comestibles, the railway companies identified the new seaside resorts as potential advertisers. Coincidentally, advertising the resorts would also advertise the railway excursions provided to serve them.
The history of the seaside is beyond the scope of this post. We need only note that, before about 1750, the seaside was a kind of wilderness. The first resorts, Brighton, Blackpool, Margate and Scarborough, were established primarily as an alternative to the overcrowded inland spa towns. The recreations offered by the resorts were both social and therapeutic.
The increasing popularity of the seaside resorts prompted the romantic exploration of more isolated areas.
The railway building boom of the 1840s supplied transport links to all the major resorts and to more isolated stretches of coast. By the 1860s and 1870s a tourist economy was developing all along the coast. Later, high-class international destinations became the sophisticated choice for travellers.
The poster display space, a substantial element in the usual costs associated with advertising, could be deferred between the railway company and the resort. In practice, the railway company offered the advertising space to the resort and deferred the cost of design and printing to the resort managers. The printing companies were kept supplied with top-end work that, co-incidentally, advertised their own expertise in the specialist work of large scale advertisement printing.
The result was a virtuous triangulation between railway, resort and printer, expressed though the lithographic integration of word and image.
The entirely positive feelings of holiday and nostalgia associated with these images has ensured the popularity over the years.
You can find out more about railway and seaside posters through the National Railway Museum, York. Check out the poster blog from the NRM, here