The Southern Railway's all too brief existence from grouping in 1923 to 1948 was largely coincident with the Art Deco period which is generally regarded as between the wars. The Southern's promotional and advertising art was a strange mix of traditional, effective, if uninspiring styles and more striking, modern art deco work. Perhaps over time our collection will be extended to form a more complete portfolio, but for the time being we intend to concentrate on the art deco stuff. We're only human, though, so we're naturally inconsistent and if we see something that's good or interesting we'll throw it in anyway.
Art Nouveau (literally 'New Art') was the immediate precursor of Art Deco. Prominent during the Belle Epoque (1880 to 1914) it reached its apogee between 1892 and 1902. Although an international movement it was essentially European with its major centre in France, especially Paris (see Hector Guimard's work on the Paris Métro). Other centres were Barcelona (where Gaudi's buildings stand as a monument to his work), Brussels and Glasgow.
Art Nouveau penetrated the commercial world, in part thanks to improved lithographic techniques and processes, and that helps to explain its ubiquity and the availability even now, a century later, of so much material.
The style was typified by extravagant, flowing and curved lines, often based on a floral motif. It took romantic themes from the Pre-Raphaelite movement and combined them with the abstract, flowing style of Symbolism or Aestheticism (the style of artists such as Aubrey Beardsley) to create a modern, forward-looking approach. It is perhaps the commercial application of the style that gives its particular directness, appeal and lasting presence.
Essentially romantic, the movement was swept away in the turmoil and tragedy of the Great War. It must have been difficult to see romance in the industrial slaughter of the trenches. You can see some fine examples of Art Nouveau posters and pictures in The Lordprice Collection's section on the subject.
Origins of Art Deco
Art Deco (from the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes) was an extension of, and reaction to Art Nouveau, incorporating influences from Modernism, Constructivism, Cubism and Bauhaus. The flowing, sensual curves and floral motifs of Art Nouveau were replaced by straighter lines, stepped forms and geometrical curves and shapes. The opulence of Art Deco was a reaction to the austerity of World War I and is perhaps personified in the ballrooms and state rooms of the great ocean-going liners.
Application of Art Deco
Art Deco was both applied to and influenced by contemporary industrial design. It used new, modern materials such as aluminium, steel, concrete and plastics. These new materials facilitated construction and engineering projects on an impressive scale. - the skyscrapers of New York (of which the Chrysler Building is the best example) and Blue Riband liners such as the Normandie.
On the railways the clearest example of Art Deco is the streamlining of high-speed locomotives. Before the Second World War the Southern lagged behind the LNER (with its A4 Pacifics including the record-breaking Mallard and unsuccessful P2 2-8-2 class) and the LMS (Princess Coronation class). The GWR even 'streamlined' its low-speed railcars. Bulleid's Merchant Navy (1941) and lighter West Country/Battle of Britain Pacifics (1945) were fine examples of the most modern streamlining designs.
For interesting examples of art deco imagery in different fields go to the Lordprice Collection's Art Deco section.
Decline of Art Deco
The success of the style and its application using modern materials made it ubiquitous and it became increasingly perceived as cheap and gaudy. Like Art Nouveau before it, the austerities imposed by global war prompted its rapid decline and by the time of the nationalisation of the Southern Railway its influence was minimal.