Conserving the Mersey Railway poster

Over the last two years we’ve been working to conserve and frame the biggest poster in the National Railway Museum’s collection. At more than 2m x 3m its been a challenge, but it’s finally complete and ready for the wall.

Mersey Railway poster, detail, after conservation

Mersey Railway poster, after conservation, Feb 2014

The poster advertises the Mersey Railway’s electric trains between Birkenhead and Liverpool. The company opened the line under the Mersey connecting the two towns in 1886, but its fortunes were waning as people were reluctant to travel in the dirt, smoke and steam produced by the locomotives in the tunnels, much preferring the ferry services. By the turn of the century the Mersey Railway was losing money and decided to move to electric rail power to turn around its fortunes.

In an incredible feat, the Mersey Railway company made all of the adjustments to the line while the steam service was in operation and trained the existing steam drivers on the new electric units in the evenings. The switch from steam to electric was made on 2nd May 1903, losing only a few hours service in the change over. The line became the first in Britain to be operated entirely by electricity.

The poster dates to between 1903 and 1908 and it illustrates the line between the Liverpool stations Liverpool Central and James St., and the Birkenhead stations Hamilton Sq., Central, Green Lane and Rock Ferry. The connecting services to New Brighton, Manchester and so on are shown with a dotted line. It advertises ‘Electric Trains every 3 minutes between Liverpool & Birkenhead in 2 ½ minutes’. It also shows a first class interior in the top right. The poster reminds potential passengers that the railway is ‘Free from fogs, gales and tides’, to entice them away from the turbulence of the ferries.

The poster was in very poor condition so we commissioned local paper conservator Ruth Mathias to treat the poster and bring it back to life. The poster, originally printed onto a number of thin pieces of paper and pasted together (much like a modern day billboard), had been glued to a linen backing and then fixed onto a wooden board. Ruth’s first job was to carefully try and separate these layers of paper, fabric and wood. The poster had also been over-painted – possibly to hide earlier areas of damage – and varnished. It was very dirty and there was some structural damage to the poster with holes and scrapes. Ruth surfaced clean the poster and removed the varnish using a mild solvent. The poster was washed, and the over-painting removed where possible. Ruth then repaired the damaged areas and rejoined the individual sections of the poster, backing it onto Japanese paper. Finally she in-painted the areas of loss. The conservation process took over a year with the poster occupying the whole of Ruth’s studio.

While the conservation was happening we had a (massive) bespoke frame built by the fine art frame maker Alan Harvey. The poster has now been framed and we hope to put it on display in the Station Hall later this year.

Mersey Railway poster, before conservation, Sept 2011

Before conservation, Sept 2011

Mersey Railway poster, detail, showing dirt and damage, Sept 2011

Detail, before conservation, showing dirt and damage, Sept 2011

Detail, Birkenhead. After conservation

Detail, Birkenhead. After conservation

Detail, electric train. After conservation

Detail, electric train and guard. After conservation

The poster was made up of smaller individual sheets of paper much like a modern billboard. Here conservator Ruth rejoins the last of the sections.

The poster was made up of small individual sheets of paper. Here paper conservator, Ruth, rejoins the sections

The last job for paper conservator Ruth, was to infill areas of loss.

The last job for paper conservator, Ruth, was to infill areas of loss

The frame was prepared and the poster careful lowered into it.

The frame was prepared and the poster careful lowered into it

Mersey Railway poster after conservation and framing, July 2014

Mersey Railway poster after conservation and framing, July 2014

You can see a video of the conservation and framing process here.

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One Response to Conserving the Mersey Railway poster

  1. Julian Hills says:

    A fantastic survival very interesting use of typefaces and the American style carriages with open platforms must have been a thrilling ride!
    I greatly appreciate the skills involved in it’s conservation.
    Thank you.

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