Monday, May 2, 2011

For steam men

On 1 January 1948, British Railways came into being: Britain’s railways were nationalized and the four regional railway companies (themselves amalgamations of a yet larger group of companies that had existed before) were drawn under the umbrella of the new national giant. A few months into the year the Architectural Review ran this cover by Osbert Lancaster, celebrating the old railway companies and their varied colour schemes. Inside the magazine an article pointed out that the new national colour scheme was about to be revealed, and put in a plea for a rethink, reviving colours that represented the different regions.

The cover beautifully illustrates some of the old liveries. I’m no railway expert and I expect others will put me right and fill in the gaps, but I think I recognise the polished teak carriages of the GNR, the blue locomotive of the Caledonian Railway, southern Railway green, and Midland Railway red.

Since the magazine was aimed at architects, the cover's background is filled with interesting bits of architecture and engineering – a stone wall (millstone grit?) behind the top GNR train, the Caledonian’s viaduct, the lovely trackside house admired by the pipe-smoking guard of the GNR goods (Gothic windows, bargeboards, ornate roof ridge, tall Tudorish chimneys), the row of suburban houses lining the Southern Railway, a green signal box (on a lower storey built of bricks in Flemish bond), the jagged valence above the Midland platform, and so on. Enamel advertising signs abound, too, for Barley Water, shoe polish, soap, and Nestlé’s milk. It’s heartening to think that in the post-war period of austerity, Britain could still look as colourful and varied as this.


Anonymous said...

As a (very modest) French rail fan, I enjoyed this post, as all your other ones.
Our own National Railways, S.N.C.F., were created in 1937 from four private companies and one public one. Each of the older ones had their own architecture, often trying to emulate the regional vernacular. If you can, try and find pictures of the station at Abbeville (red brick and white stone, Compagnie du Nord), or Chenonceaux (a small version of a Renaissance Loire Valley château in soft white stone and brick, Paris-Orléans), or Metz (built under the German occupation between 1871 and 1918, in a neo-mediæval Bismarckian style), or indeed many others. Books have been written on French railway architecture. The S.N.C.F. nowadays seems pretty negligent about maintaining its buildings; many are torn down, when not, or under-, used, unless protected/listed.
It is always a pleasure to arrive at St. Pancras under the great glass canopy with the light blue metal work and the gothic brick, with mental thanks to John Betjeman.
Are there any books on British railway architecture that you would recommend?
François-Marc Chaballier

Peter Ashley said...

This is right up my street, as you can imagine Phil. Oh a return to proper liveries on our English trains that last more than a couple of years, instead of the usual soap packet designs of whoever has won the latest franchise up for grabs. Currently only the Southern appears to pay a little respect for the green countryside through which their trains run. For 'Anonymous' I would recommend Britain's Historic Railway Buildings by Gordon Biddle (Oxford).

Philip Wilkinson said...

François-Marc: Gordon Biddle, Britain's Historic Railway Buildings (Oxford) is the state-of-the-art coverage.

It's also worth looking out for an older book, Gordon Biddle and O S Nock, The Railway Heritage of Britain (Michael Joseph), available cheaply secondhand.

As you mention Betjeman, have you come across his book London's Historic Railway Stations (John Murray)? It's out of date now, but still worth reading for Betjeman's prose and the atmospheric photographs of John Gay.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: I knew you'd like this. There's much, much more to say about the local distinctiveness of England's railway architecture, but above all I wanted to share this wonderful Osbert Lancaster cover.

George said...

I had to click, given the Mylesian title.

The other winter I read or reread Yeats's Autobiographies and winced at his passing praise for New York City's Pennsylvania Station--it was torn down in the 1960s and replaced by an unattractive underground annex to Madison Square Garden.

Yet Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington have handsome stations yet.

bazza said...

Not only is that a wonderful design (it would make a superb wall poster) but it's an interesting primary source for enjoying the various liveries that existed.
Asd a young teenager I would have loved to hang that on my bedroom wall; actually I wouldn't mind it as an adult!
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

George: Congratulations on spotting the allusion to Myles. You should get a prize - a pint of plain, perhaps. Penn Station is indeed a sad loss. I was there last week, as it happens, and the sad slab of Madison Square Garden in no way compensates for the extraordinary building that was swept away. Still, it was wonderful to emerge from the gloomy depths of the New Jersey Transit track right into Manhattan.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: I agree. I'd have it on my wall. Maybe the Archi Rev should reprint some of its old covers as posters. They certainly employed some excellent artists (John Piper, Kenneth Rowntree in addition to Osbert Lancaster).