#604 – Crewe Works – Lili Rethi revisited

Back in 2014, I wrote a blog post about the marvellous railway poster created by Lili Rethi for the LMS in 1937. In it, a Coronation class locomotive is being built at Crewe Works in a very masculine style. It’s a poster I’ve admired for many years, and about twenty years ago I bought a rather poor copy off the National Railway Museum before they digitised and commercialised their print assets. I’d always longed for a proper one, but unfortunately, original posters go for four figure sums, however the Science Museum now sell prints from their archive via the Science and Society Picture Library, so while this large sized print wasn’t exactly cheap at £45, it was worth making room on my wall for!

Seeing a picture as a print is always preferable to seeing it on screen in my opinion, and I’ve always enjoyed going to exhibitions, plus I have a small collection of prints and artwork. I also print my own work as there is a satisfaction in having a tangible artefact at the end of the photographic process, and well, it’s hard to have a photographic exhibition without something to hang on the wall. So what I’m trying to say in a long winded way is that I like having a paper print to look at.

I chose a large print as I recently renovated an old picture frame that had been sat in my garage for ten years and was too good to go in the skip. A quick sand down, some undercoat and then a few coats of black paint produced a surprisingly good result. This now has pride of place in my home office and to keep things fresh I regularly swap the picture in it. As the Crewe Works print has just arrived I’ve cut a mount and put it straight in.

I don’t know enough about art and illustration to comment with any authority on the picture, it’s just something that I loved the minute I saw it in a book of railway posters I bought many years ago. My love of industry and engineering, and a soft spot for steam locomotives, endeared this to me immediately. It’s more impressionistic than Terence Cuneo’s ‘An Engine is wheeled’ that was painted 15-20 years later. Cuneo was a master of the railway / industrial scene and in his long career painted all manner of commissions, and he had a distinctive – but more realistic – style that graced many post-war railway posters. Lili Rethi didn’t stick to one style and only produced one other railway poster from what I can see, but her 1935 poster of the Royal Mail underground railway has shades of Crewe Works, especially the heroic looking, but faceless workers.

For the most part, locomotive works and sheds didn’t tend to appear in railway posters, it was all about the glamour and promise of the destination. Cuneo managed a few in the post war era, starting with Giants Refreshed, and then later The Day Begins and Progress (although I’m not sure the latter was used as a poster – this source suggests it was for the cover of a magazine, but I’m happy to be wrong), but these were not the norm. So for Rethi’s picture of Crewe Works to be used was quite bold, and may have been part of the railways marketing effort to hype the imminent arrival of these glamorous streamliners, their response to the LNER’s streamlined A4’s. Certainly the 1937 date of the poster coincides with the introduction of the Coronation class. Indeed, if the Wikipedia page is to be believed, the streamlining was introduced at the request of the marketing department, although that might just be an apocryphal tale! Either way, the streamlining wasn’t thought to add much by way of performance and hindered maintenance and after the war, it was removed off all the locomotives that were so equipped.

Rethi was born in Vienna in 1894 and trained as an illustrator. She documented many German engineering projects of the inter war period, but as she was Jewish, it became increasingly hard to find work despite her obvious talents. She moved to London in the mid-1930’s and it was here that she produced the works feature in this article. Her stay in Britain was short, and when she travelled to New York to produce illustration of the Works Fair for the Illustrated London News, she applied for American citizenship on arrival and stayed there for the rest of her life.

I think it’s the dynamism and energy in the picture that stand out for me. It seems almost as if a camera has frozen the movement of the workers as they hurried to build the these huge locomotives, although I think the size has been compressed a little for effect as Coronations are big old things. But at the same time, the workers are strangely devoid of facial features, maybe a nod to the idea of workers being subservient to the system, mere numbers in the enormous LMS organisational machine.

The beauty of viewing a large picture up close is the ability to see the things you just don’t notice when looking a small pictures on screen. It’s the little things – the smaller man in the foreground possibly heating up rivets, the stanchions of the works receding into the background, and a wheelset being craned into the scene.

Rethi used different media throughout her career, and many of her works you can see online are in pencil. She uses pencil in this picture to show the rest of the works behind the locomotives, giving an aerial perspective effect.

So here is the framed picture above my workstation. Yes the frame’s not quite the right ratio for the print , but as I prefer to chop and change the contents, I’m happy with it.





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