Artist Profile: Norman Wilkinson

In Norman Wilkinson’s own words, his “whole interest was ships and the sea.” He was an illustrator and maritime painter of great renown (one of his paintings was commissioned to hang in the smoking room on the Titanic) and he even devised a camouflage system for the British Navy during World War I called “Dazzle Painting.”  

And yet, for all his fame, he is perhaps best known to the public for the 100+ posters he designed for the LMS railway in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.  Most desirable of these are his vistas and landscapes, urban and rural, from the skyscape of London to the rolling hills of Scotland, but also including scenes of dry docks, ports and other industrial areas.  

The allure and skill of his work was best summed up in 1927, when John Harrison, reviewing the artist’s work in the pages of Commercial Art, Art & Industry, explained that “Norman Wilkinson is one of the best present day, realistic, poster designers. [His] work is English and atmospheric . . . When we say realism, of course, we use the word in the deliberate sense of poster realism. It does not mean that Wilkinson ‘puts everything in’ in a faithful and academic manner. Far from it. He illuminates and selects, but he illuminates and selects, with a sense of the poetry and amplitude of Nature. . . working in broad lines and leaving large blank spaces, he retains a great fidelity to the spirit of the actual scene he is depicting. He does not reduce a poster to a purely geometrical arrangement; he reduces it to the essence of the landscape (or the essence of the sea). For one with a considerable reputation as a painter, Wilkinson shows a remarkable attitude for poster technique. The excellent thing is that he presents a complete scene, characteristic and convincing as reality, it’s simple and vivid with the simplicity and vividness nowadays demanded from an advertisement” (p. 270). 

Norman Wilkinson began his career providing black-and-white illustrations for the Illustrated London News and other periodicals. He was a man of many talents, but anchoring all of them was his passion for maritime painting. 

A benchmark of his success and renown as a maritime painter was the commission he received to paint Plymouth Harbour, a painting that hung over the mantelpiece in the smoking room of the Titanic and a companion painting of New York Harbor, Approach to the New World, commissioned to hang in the S.S. Olympic, Titanic’s sister ship. 

Wilkinson’s greatest historical claim to fame is that he was the creator of a camouflage system for ships used by the British Navy during World War I, called “Dazzle Painting.” Specifically, it was more of a “disguise and confuse” system. As Wilkinson writes, “since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer – in other words, to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and this confuse a submarine officer as to the course on which she was heading” (A Brush With Life, p. 79). 

English Railway Posters

Wilkinson designed his first poster, for the Booth shipping line, in 1903 and his next in 1905 for the London and North Western Railway Company. He commends his own design by explaining that “at this date the Railway poster was generally an uninspired jumble of small views of resorts, frequently arranged in little circular frames, with a good deal of meaningless decoration interwoven between each picture. The effect was a hotch potch (sic) which was quite unintelligible at a distance.” (A Brush With Life p. 19) 

The image he designed, as he continues in his autobiography, allowed him to “lay claim to being the father and mother of the ‘artistic’ poster on English railway stations” (A Brush With Life, p. 20).  

Left: Norman Wilkinson, White Star / Dominion / Montreal-Quebec-Liverpool, circa 1908. Sold November 2015 for $1,680.

In addition to his work for the railways, Wilkinson also designed posters for shipping companies including White Star Line, Cunard Line, the Allan Line, the Blue Star Line and others. Wilkinson designed a number of posters for the Canadian Pacific Railway, all dealing with their sea-faring operations.

Wilkinson’s railway posters range from sublime, breathtaking landscapes to mundane, cultural tableaux and industrial scenes. One series he designed for the LMS consisted of buildings from Famous Public Schools on the LMS; “Each contains information on the history and customs of the school depicted and bears the crest of both the school and the LMS. Others in the series include Bedford, Berkhamsted, Fettes College, Mill Hill, Oundle, Rugby, St. Paul’s (London), Sedbergh, Shrewsbury, Stonyhurst, Stowe, Uppingham and Westminster” (Railway p. 122). Another series depicted several historical, interior scenes such as The Birthplace of Robert Burns – Alloway – Ayrshire, Dove Cottage Grasmere and Sulgrave Manor

Norman Wilkinson posters from left to right: Fettes College, 1937; Harrow School, 1937. Sold January 2003 for $632.

“The LMS promoted trade custom as well as tourism. [Posters depicting] factories, railhead distribution and exceptional loads were encouraged” (Railway p. 106) and a number of Wilkinson’s posters depict industrial and commercial vistas: A Midland Coalfield, Ship Building on the Clyde, Grangemouth Docks, and Lanarkshire Steelworks, among many others. While these may not depict inviting, cheerful and alluring scenery, they remain popular among collectors. 

Norman Wilkinson’s Golf Poster Designs

Left: Norman Wilkinson, Golf in Northern Ireland, circa 1925. Sold November 2007 for $19,200.

Although his posters generally do not depict people, by far the most popular and expensive of his posters are those that depict golf scenes. The highest price paid for a Wilkinson poster was $19,200, achieved in 2007 for Golf In Northern Ireland, 1925. The second highest price was for Sport on the LMS / Golf, circa 1930, which achieved $14,000 in 2010. 

The majority of his posters, however, are much more affordable, with average prices between $1,000-$4,000.  

Harrison, sums up the artist’s graphic oeuvre with the following “He remains always an Englishman with the broad technique and charm of manner, which characterized the painters of the 18th century. Like them also he employs a rather delicate and subdued color scheme and rarely seeks to gain an effect by strident notes of primary color or affective discords, such as many artists nowadays employ. Pale green and blue, with deep notes of brown and indigo are characteristic and distinguish his posters from the usual color schemes of the day” (Commercial art and Industry, 1927, page 270 and following).