Picturing the imaginary geography of the Great Western Railway, 1903-39

CHORD workshop

Retailing History: Text and Images

Paper given on 29 April 2009, Wolverhampton University

Full details of the workshop here.

Hiroki Shin and Matt Thompson, University of York and National Railway Museum, ‘Commercial Landscape? The Use of Landscape in Railway Publicity, 1900s - 1930s’

This paper attempts to place the use of landscape in railway companies' commercial culture and their publicity policy. From the 1890s a huge number of railway publicity materials featuring landscapes were produced and widely distributed. However, these publicity campaigns have occupied an uneasy place between the history of transport and the history of tourism since, on the one hand, the actual effect that these materials had on the promotion of particular places was difficult to measure in objective terms (Ward 1998, 31-2). On the other hand, the publicity’s contribution to the volume of passenger traffic is also not yet clear (Simmons 1991, 258). Thus, these promotional efforts by the railway companies have been treated mostly in the context of commercial art, or used to illustrate the proliferation of popular tourism (Cole and Durack 1992).

Recent developments in the cultural interpretation of business history give us a new way to analyse and evaluate railway publicity (Watts 2004; Harrington 2004; Bennett 2000). This paper emphasises the importance of the commercial culture of railway companies, for it provides the basic assumptions about their treatment of landscape. The commercial culture itself was created, intentionally or unintentionally, through the situation in which the railways were placed - in the case of the early twentieth century it was calibrated to enhance discretionary passenger travel under severe competition (Divall and Revill 2005). As such, the treatment and the presentation of landscape and locations could have a significant strategic meaning.

 Although there was a common general direction, the commercial culture was expressed in different ways from company to company. Sometimes, conflicting views were generated within a company. How was the relationship between the commercial and aesthetic imperative negotiated? Some preliminary answers will be made through examination of the publicity materials of major railway companies in the early twentieth century - chiefly the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS).


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