Collector’s Guide: Railway Posters

Nicholas D. Lowry Picks His Top Locomotive Travel Posters

Among the earliest European travel posters were produced by the railway companies to sell tickets on their new trains crisscrossing the European continent. These early posters, which proliferated in the 1890s, can be recognized by their painterly style. Images by Hugo d’Alesi (shown left) of glorious landscapes, often with one or two vignettes showing other local areas of interest, and frequently with large blocks of text outlining train schedules and fares, come to mind as the most visible of these promotions. As do the posters by Henri Garnier Tanconville, notable less for their graphic design and more for their artistry, these images paved the way for bolder, more creative railway advertising in the coming decades.

By the 1920s and ’30s, railroad advertising had become less about depicting the destinations with verisimilitude but rather presenting graphically rendered landscapes, and trying to capture a feeling, to create an allure around traveling. This was achieved by depicting elegant, stylish people on holiday (“this could be you!”) and, more importantly, focusing on the means of arriving at your destination. The trains themselves began to figure more and more prominently in advertising. In other words, marketers (actually there was no such position then, so let’s call them advertisers) began to focus not on where you were going, but rather how you would get there.

There are thousands of travel posters promoting railways around the world, but my focus today is on those posters that depict the trains themselves. There is something so monolithic and powerful about these inspired, graphic images of locomotives and carriages, that they hold the same fascination and appeal that they held at the time of their creation for the traveling public. The captivating images are imbued with a sense of power, they generate a sense of excitement and fantasy and help mythologize the romance of travel. For me, these are the most aesthetic, evocative and, frankly, thrilling images that I have come across. When I look at them I marvel at their composition. My heart skips a beat and something inside me reverberates just a little and says, “wow!”

Sascha Maurer

Sascha Maurer, Summer in New England / New Haven Railroad, circa 1938. Sold in our November 10, 2001 sale of 100 Rare & Important Travel Posters for $7,475. The only time it has appeared at auction.

In many ways combining the best of two completely different design tropes, the landscape poster and the mighty locomotive, Maurer flawlessly melds the two together. This poster has only appeared at auction once (in 2001), which is very unusual given that it would have been printed in large enough numbers to imagine that others have survived. Not only is it rare, but it was a great validation of its importance when Michael Zega used the image on the cover of his 2002 book Travel By Train.

Fritz Rosen

A speeding locomotive, showing the view from the engineers cab, with the city’s skyline in the distance is depicted from a dramatic perspective that would become immortalized the following year by A. M. Cassandre’s Nord Express. It is interesting to imagine that this dramatic viewpoint was not Cassandre’s creation, but rather his interpretation of someone else’s design.  It is ironic to consider that less than 20 years later, in 1945, the Allied forces, recently landed at Normandy, were moving as fast as they could towards Berlin.

Terrence Cuneo

Cuneo was a painter, and his work was so realistic, so technically brilliant and marvelous that his myriad posters (all of which were done as paintings first) depict aspects of the British train industry with such precision and detail as to reawaken childhood fantasies about trains.

Philip Zec

Philip Zec, By Night Train to Scotland / LMS, 1932. Sold in our October 25, 2018 sale of Rare & Important Travel Posters for $17,500.

This exceptional nocturnal scene by Philip Zec—with the engine’s hot furnace illuminating the plume of smoke from its funnel, beneath the glowing moon is as much a picture-poem as it is a poster.

A.M. Cassandre

Adolphe Mouron Cassandre, LMS / Best Way, 1928. Sold November 8, 2012 in Rare & Important Travel Posters for $162,000.

Southern Pacific

Bern Hill

Bern Hill, Fast Freight Service in the Great Midwest, circa 1950s. Sold February 7, 2019 in our sale of Vintage Posters for $1,300.

Bern Hill was the first to bring European Avant-Garde design sensibilities to the American railroad poster. He was always precise in rendering the liveries of each railroad company he depicted, and adept at choosing dramatic perspectives from which to present the engines he depicted. The above poster was one in a series he designed for General Motors.

Emil Andre Schef

The famed car designer Ettore Bugatti began designing rail cars early in the 1930s. By 1934, the Bugatti trains had captured a world rail speed record of 196 kilometers an hour.


Designer Unkown, Stresa-Mottarone, 1920. Sold Februrary 11, 2016 in our Vintage Posters sale for $1,950.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful and atmospheric of all railroad posters, although technically it is for a cable car (electric railway).

The savvy amongst you will notice that I have not included several of the most iconic Art Deco railway images: A.M. Cassandre’s Nord Express, Leslie Ragan’s 20th Century Limited and Pierre Fix-Masseau’s Exactitude. Each, in its own way, celebrates the locomotive as a machine, a graphic nod to progress and modernity. Celebrating design and power, they are also so very well known that I will merely mention them here.

Related Reading: The Excitement of Discovering “Previously Unrecorded” Travel Posters and On Buying a Vintage Poster: What You Need to Know

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