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'By Night Train to Scotland' design by Philip Zec – £20,500 at Onslows.

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One of the most coveted of all British railway posters, Philip Zec’s (1900-83) By Night Train to Scotland, sold for £20,500 at the Onslows (25% buyer’s premium inc VAT) sale in Dorset on November 26.

Zec, a Russian émigré who became better known as a political cartoonist, created only two posters for the LNER (here in conjunction with the LMS). This 3ft 4in x 4ft 2in (1.02 x 1.27m) ‘quad royal’ image of a moonlit Flying Scotsman was printed by McCorquodale & Co of Glasgow c.1932. Surviving in only small numbers, in the collecting hierarchy it comes second only to Alexandre Alexeieff’s dream-like The Night Scotsman, also from 1932.

Patrick Bogue of Onslows has sold a handful of examples of Zec’s masterwork across a long career. “We had one about 35 years ago in a sale which had come from a private railway layout up in Scotland. Even that long ago, mounted on board, it made £3000. That was a fortune in those days so even years ago people loved it. We sold one about five years ago for £17,000.”

The latest example was estimated at £15,000- 18,000 and went to an English collector living in south-west London.

On the moors

By Night Train to Scotland was one of several scarce designs in a ‘superb connoisseur’s collection’ of 20th century posters put together over 30 years. Bogue called it “without doubt one of the best collections we have handled in 35 years of vintage poster auctions”. It made up 158 of the 415 lots in the Winter Auction of Travel & Vintage Posters.

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'Yorkshire Moors' by Tom Purvis – £6300 at Onslows.

Another rare work by a famous name was the Yorkshire Moors by LNER quad royal printed by The Dangerfield Printing Company, London, c.1930.

The design is by Tom ‘King of the Hoardings’ Purvis (1888-1959), perhaps the greatest commercial artist from the golden age of railway posters. He was one of the five leading designers of the day (the others being Fred Taylor, Frank H Mason, Frank Newbould and Austin Cooper) each given three-year contracts by LNER in 1926.

His best-known work is the East Coast Joys series of six posters that can be linked together as one (Onslows sold a full set in July 2019 to a US collector for £19,500).

This moors design, estimated at £3500-4500, sold to a Kent collector for £6300. Bogue said: “This is a rare poster. We sold one from the Purvis studio sale in 1988, the last time we had one. This example was in superb condition and several people were bidding on it.”

Cassandre classics

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AM Cassandre’s 'Etoile du Nord' – £10,000 at Onslows.

Outside the British posters market, AM Cassandre (Adolphe Mouron, 1901-68) is a towering figure. A multi-talented poster and theatre designer, lithographer, painter and creator of typefaces, he was born in Ukraine in 1901 to French parents (moving to Paris in 1915).

His designs for the French railways are some of the most distinctive and popular travel images. The collection at Onslows included several examples. Nord Express, a 3ft 6in x 2ft 6in (1.05m x 75cm) design printed by Hachard & Cie, Paris 1927, dipped under estimate at £11,000, selling online to a Parisian collector.

Selling for a mid-estimate £10,000 to a Kent collector was one rated by Bogue as “the most beautiful of all Cassandre’s posters, but not always easiest to sell” – the Etoile du Nord from 1927.

White Star ‘whopper’

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Cunard White Star (RMS Queen Mary) – £9800 at Onslows.

The largest poster in the sale depicted the Cunard White Star RMS Queen Mary with the New York skyline behind. At 11ft 10in x 5ft 11in (3 x 1.8m) this was a “whopper” and also something of a mystery.

Bogue attributed it to Walter Thomas (1894-1971) but said it is “not in any books, not in any records, not in any museum collections, and because it is so big I wonder whether it was printed in any number?

“What it was printed for I don’t know. My reckoning is it was probably for a Cunard travel agents or offices in Southampton or New York because it is such a big poster with great impact, great scarcity.” It sold just under estimate at £9800 to a French buyer.

Significant internet interest

The sale total was £335,000 including premium, with online interest significant.

Bogue said: “The sale in normal times would have taken about three hours to sell at 100 lots an hour, but this took seven hours. There were so many internet bidders, people at home just looking to buy something. Last July’s sale was very strong but this one was extraordinary. I’ve never really known anything like it.

“There is serious money around for the quality railway posters. But people with not such deep pockets, spending less than £1000, are beginning to collect retro British art. The age group of people possibly buying these posters are in their 50s, 60s, 70s – it’s the nostalgia side of it. And if you can’t go to a place on holiday, buy a poster of it…”