Author: Natasha Cantwell

Communications & Online Engagement Officer

The 1930s have been dubbed the Golden Age of poster design in Australia. This was partly due to the efforts of the Victorian Railways and the Australian National Travel Association to promote tourism and outdoor recreation by commissioning posters from the best commercial artists of the day.

 

Mount Macedon poster by James Northfield
Geelong, Victoria Australia. Poster number 217. Percy Trompf poster for Victorian Railways circa 1930s. Public Transport Photographic Collection. Image citation: PTC-slide-box47-046.

 

Three of the most popular and influential artists, Gert Sellheim (1901-1970), James Northfield  (1887-1973) and Percy Trompf (1902-1964) were colleagues at Melbourne’s  Art Training Institute. Trompf and Northfield, who were both born in small town Victoria, idealised the Australian countryside in lush, painterly tones. They enticed their audiences with depictions of wholesome holidaymakers marvelling at majestic landscapes. It was always perfect weather to “Take a Kodak”, with brilliant blue skies and intense sunshine creating dramatic shadows.

 

Mt Buffalo poster by Percy Trompf
Mt Buffalo. Poster Number 205. Percy Trompf poster for Victorian Railways circa 1930s. Public Transport Photographic Collection. Image citation: PTC-slide-box48-012.

 

Their posters beautifully combined  colourful, often full-bleed illustrations with sparingly used text, mixing sans-serif and elegant art deco typefaces. As Australia suffered the effects of the Great Depression, these optimistic images were hugely popular with the public. The simple pleasure of a nature walk around Mount Macedon or a day at the beach in Geelong was an achievable dream to most Melburnians.

 

Mount Macedon poster by James Northfield
Mount Macedon has exclusive beauty. Poster number 218. James Northfield poster for Victorian Railways circa 1930s. Public Transport Photographic Collection. Image citation: PTC-slide-box47-037.

 

In contrast to this romantic vision, Sellheim’s aesthetic was bold, abstract and minimalist. The modernist designer and architect was born in Estonia and studied in Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Graz and Paris. His European education exposed him to major international trends, such as cubism and photomontage, and he brought a radical, avant-garde style with him when he immigrated to Australia in 1926.

 

Visit the seaside poster by Gert Sellheim
Visit the seaside. Travel by train. Poster number 165. Gert Sellheim poster for Victorian Railways circa 1930s. Public Transport Photographic Collection. Image citation: PTC-slide-box48-020.

 

Originally finding it difficult to get work, as his overseas architectural qualifications were not recognised, Sellheim began working as an architect in Perth in 1929, before moving to Melbourne in 1931. It was here that he started his career as a graphic artist, creating posters principally for the Australian National Travel Association and the Victorian Railways. Braking from conventional illustrative traditions, his stylised depictions of fun at the seaside, let the viewer's imagination fill in the gaps. 

 

To the seaside by train poster by Gert Sellheim and Phelan
To the seaside by train. Poster number 221. Gert Sellheim and Phelan poster for Victorian Railways circa 1935. Public Transport Photographic Collection. Image citation: VPRS 12903-p00001-BOX610-4.

 

The outbreak of World War II led to a suspension of the demand for travel posters. After the War, colour photography and screen-printing gradually replaced illustrative work but the influence of the Golden Age of poster design continues to influence artists today.

 

To see more posters from these artists and their contemporaries, take a look at our Flickr album Art Deco Victorian Tourism & Railway Posters.