Illustrating New Zealand’s railways

Peter Alsop, Neill Atkinson, Katherine Milburn & Richard Wolfe
Te Papa Press


This is a highlight among the swag of coffee-table books which hit the bookshops at the end of each year. And it needs to be as large as it is to do justice to the photographs and artwork as well as accommodate the superb storytelling in the text.

The subject is an unlikely one but as you journey through the life and times of a small part of a once-large government department you realise that the raw material: artwork, photographs, trains, people at work, advertising and much more, is pretty well a summary of 20th-century New Zealand.

It is all made possible through a singular assembly of writers. Peter Alsop on art, Neill Atkinson on rail history, Richard Wolfe on Kiwi culture, and Katherine Milburn on the ephemera which illustrates it all. Milburn’s role at the Hocken Collections may be the reason that Dunedin features rather more prominently here than it does in other books by northern publishers.

But, given the main theme - railway advertising - Dunedin and Otago deserve a high profile. On some pages almost all the billboards are advertising Otago manufacturers. Lane’s emulsion, Cadbury chocolate, Maltexo, Bruce woollen goods, Gregg’s coffee, and so on. Dunedin even boasted the country’s largest stand-alone billboard (40x60ft) in the 1930s, an ad for Austin Motors (Otago). The mechanics of designing and erecting billboards through the country are explained in detail, describing the labour-intensive methods of the time.

There seems to be almost nothing in which the Railways Studios were not involved.

Many of the posters have become icons (including the Caroline Bay poster which suggests that the artist never visited Timaru, but it became popular all the same). Train-spotters are not forgotten and fine photos of engines, carriages and stations are sprinkled throughout.

In fact, research for this book suggests that the designer of the main stained-glass windows at Dunedin Railway Station, unknown until now, was almost certainly Adam Howitt. Such are the gems of good research.

The book also serves as a company history, drawing on interviews with past staff members and providing pen portraits of the most prominent artists and administrators.

Railway Studios is a fine achievement, a book that is almost all things to all people, just as the railways were in their heyday.

Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.


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