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Fine art, yes, but art with a commercial purpose

The message is clear: If you want to be part of a world of elegance and class - even if it is only while you are on holiday - travel by train!

In particular, travel by LNER (London and North Eastern Railway). Then you will end up as part of a predinner elite at the North British Hotel in Edinburgh, gathering nonchalantly in black tie and evening dresses by Schiaparelli or Vionnet.

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The reputation of British artist Gordon Nicoll (1888-1959), though also a landscape painter, now rests mainly on two series of railway posters he designed in the early 1930s for the LNER. The impressive, brilliantly stylish one shown at right is currently on view in an exhibition of LNER posters of the '20s and '30s at the Monkwearmouth Station Museum in Sunderland, England. (until Oct. 31).

The advertising policy of the LNER was unashamedly to entice people by presenting a dream world of pleasure and comfort. Hotels were an integral part of the attraction, many of them owned and run by the railways.

The LNER advertising policy was a paradoxical mixture of "fine art" and "commercial art." The advertising manager William Teesdale demanded artistically innovative standards of design from serious artists. Displayed at stations, the LNER posters could sometimes virtually be public art exhibitions. Indeed, posters were occasionally displayed in actual art gallery exhibitions - as "art." But Teesdale also made very sure his artists understood the purely commercial purpose of their images.

The LNER's poster campaign was successful enough that the company exclusively retained five artists in the mid-1920s. But by the early '30s, the Depression had brought this arrangement to an end. When Gordon Nicoll was employed, it would have been as a freelancer. The elegant living his hotel images promoted must have looked aspirational and unattainable to many travelers even then.

To our down-market eyes today, with trains being little more than a mundane and often inefficient way of going from Point A to B, such stylized and beautifully painted advertisements appeal vigorously as pure nostalgia.