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How the railways helped create New Zealand

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Railways Studios: How a Government Design Studio Helped Build New Zealand

A definitive illustrated history of the graphic work of the railways studios.

By Peter Alsop, Neill Atkinson, Katherine Milburn and Richard Wolfe 

Te Papa Press

RRP : $70.00

Reviewed by John Daly-Peopl;es


In 1920 New Zealand Railways established its own Railways Studios  with the aim of promoting the railways as well as New Zealand as a tourist destination. The Studios produced posters, pamphlets, maps and pictorial postage stamps promoting NZR’s services. They also undertook work for many other  government and business clients that advertised at stations, inside carriages and on trackside hoardings.

One hundred years on a new book “Railways Studios, the design studio of the New Zealand Railways” tells the remarkable story of the way in which a government department helped connect New Zealand physically and socially, producing advertising for a range of clients and dominating outdoor advertising.

The Studios worked closely with the Tourist Department, local authorities and chambers of commerce to publicise travel, accommodation and sightseeing packages. They turned out a series of bright, attractive posters highlighting the scenic and therapeutic charms of rail destinations such as the Bay of Islands, Tauranga, Rotorua, Napier, National Park and Timaru. They also promoted combined rail/motor tours to Lake Wanaka, Mount Cook and Fiordland. These images managed to create an image of the country as a magical wonderland of almost mythical  proportions and while  the glories of Mt Cook, Fiordland and Rotorua were promoted so to were the relative wonders of Timaru, Helensville and Te Aroha.

Early New Zealand advertising generally lacked the sophistication of American or European marketing. NZR posters in the 1920s usually mimicked the style and tone of British railway advertising. Most featured sun-drenched beaches and ‘bathing belles’, towering mountain peaks, lush forests or exotic Maori. But by the early 1930s the artists in the studios were producing more daring abstract designs that often featured a montage of images and bold colours and shapes.

The designs occasionally strayed into the areas of false advertising as can be seen in the cover image  of the book designed by Marcus King which features what might have been intended as an elaborate pah site but looks more like a European-style castle sitting above a New Zealand vista. The promotion of New Zealand also saw the Studios providing advertising at various expositions throughout New Zealand as well as  at world fairs such as the British Empire Exhibition in London in 1924.

The railway station and railway carriages  were ideal venues for mass communication and such intense advertising and promotion can still be seen in places like the London Tube stations and carriages.

Not only did the stations and carriages have advertising about the railways they also provided advertising material for range of consumer  products ranging from  food, paint and clothing through to  automobiles, petrol companies and airlines.

There is a chapter on  the Studios association  with the New Zealand Railways Magazine, a forerunner the Listener which was published between 1926 and 1940. Alongside railway news, the magazine promoted domestic tourism and  New Zealand verse, short fiction, humour, sports news, historical yarns, biographical sketches and book reviews. Among the many contributors  were James Cowan, Robin Hyde and Denis Glover.

Whatever the promotion – from rail travel and tourism to enlistment in the army, clothing and health promotion – the Studios played a role. Thousands of its designs influenced public attitudes, shaping how New Zealanders saw themselves.

As well  an insight into how the studios worked the book provides a time capsule of life in New Zealand and the importance of the railway network. There are numerous photographs of various stations around New Zealand from the impressive  main railway station in Wellington to the small station at Rakaia.

The book is lavishly illustrated with hundreds of images alongside the well-researched chapters which touch on the history of rail transport in New Zealand,  In covering the history of advertising the book also reveals the artists who worked for the Studios. A few of the names are familiar as artists in their own right such as  John Holmwood and Gordon Tovey but most have not been recognised and the book provides an opportunity to recognise their talents.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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