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Canadian Pacific Railway Posters: The Making of Canada’s Landscape Image

By Marc H. Choko

Magazine Issue: Spring/Summer 2021


It all started in 1886. In an article, “Our Railway to the Pacific,” published in the English newspaper Good Words, the Marquess of Lorne, husband of Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, vaunted the marvelous scenery offered all along their trip through Canada aboard the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The same year, The Illustrated London News offered their readers a series of photographs taken by the famous Montreal studio William Notman and Son on the same route.

From the end of the nineteenth century to the 1960s, these publications were part of vast campaigns initiated by William Van Horne and subsequent presidents of the CPR - who strongly believed in publicity strategies - to promote the image of Canada and of the company. They directed the distribution of millions of brochures, pamphlets, timetables, menus, advertisements, and thousands of posters illustrated with stunning Canadian landscapes to attract the attention of the European and North American leisure travellers.

Alfred Crocker Leighton, Château Lake Louise, 1937.

At first, the CPR targeted Victorian elites and wealthy Americans. The company used the splendors of the Rocky Mountains, the lakes, and their luxurious “châteaux-style” hotels as key attractions. Slogans like “Why go to Switzerland?” and “Twenty Switzerlands in one,” and even “Fifty Switzerlands in one” extolled the beauties of the scenery. Ads of the 1920s and 1930s featured the exceptionally-situated Banff Springs Hotel and the famous Château Lake Louise. To distinguish these destinations, ads generously described them as “America’s St. Moritz,” a reference to St. Moritz, Switzerland, the era’s most fashionable mountain destination, and the upscale society gathered at the Banff Springs hotel as “The mountain Champs-Élysées of North America.”

The company soon added athletic activities as further inducements to visiting the Canadian wilderness. Hiking, horseback riding, and climbing were some of the recreations their posters promoted. When the middle class started to travel for pleasure, the CPR opened a series of cheaper resorts and bungalow camps that included sporting pursuits, such as canoeing, sailing, fishing, and hunting.

Canada became a famous destination for winter sports in particular. In 1925, a CPR ad trumpeted, “Quebec: The winter sport capital of the winter sport land.” In the 1920s, curling, skating, “Norwegian snowshoeing,” skiing (cross-country skiing), ski-joring (being pulled on skis by dogs or a horse) and ski jumping, were very popular for those who could afford it. In the 1930s, with the introduction of tow ropes, ski lifts, and lightweight flexible skis, downhill skiing began to take-off as a fashionable recreation in North America.

The challenge then became to sell Canada all year round. Canada Pacific Railways established grand hotels on the east and west coasts offering proximity to the ocean. In Victoria, lush gardens and a golf course enhanced The Empress hotel. A 1931 advertising campaign sold the Victoria resort as “Canada’s evergreen playground.” An ad even claimed that visitors could “Golf every day of the year.” At the other end of the country, the Algonquin Hotel at St. Andrews by-the-Sea, New Brunswick, and the Digby Pines Hotel in Digby, Nova Scotia, offered a golf course and spa with fantastic views of the ocean. Other poster campaigns advertised cruises on the Great Lakes which the company offered during the 1920s and 1930s.

To create eye-catching posters inspired by these landscapes, the CPR, which had its headquarters in London, England commissioned designs by well-known British artists, such as Alfred C. Leighton, Leonard Richmond, Kenneth Shoesmith, and Tom Purvis. This strategy helped bring their ads to the attention of graphic art magazines that multiplied between the two World Wars.

The company also issued dozens of tourism posters by Canadian artists. Ski posters signed by Thomas Hall, John Vickery, Norman Fraser, and some unsigned, can be found. Those designed by Peter Ewart are the most striking; their Modern graphic style conveys the thrill of speed and freedom of the open slopes.

Hunting and fishing in Canada became a growing attraction. Poster designers working for Canadian Pacific explicitly encouraged sportsmen to come and shoot anything that ran or flew. Tom Hall’s grizzly poster for the famous Big Game campaign of 1938–39 won the top award out of 250 entries at the first Transit Advertisers annual exhibition held at New York City’s Rockefeller Center.

Early Canadian Pacific posters are lithographic prints, but the primary technique became serigraphy after the company opened its own silkscreen printing studio at Windsor Station in 1932. Much of the silkscreen printing had to be done by hand, which was not a problem during the Depression as labor cost was low and, rather than laying off employees, the company put some to work printing posters. The silkscreen technique does not require extensive training, special expertise, or sophisticated, expensive equipment. Compared to lithography, serigraphy is an uncomplicated and economical process. In addition, texts, parts of the illustrations, and prices could be easily modified at any stage of the printing process at no extra cost. The designers commissioned to create the poster designs were mainly local freelance artists supplementing their other commercial or artistic activities. Artists such as Thomas Hall, James Crockart, and, above all, Norman Fraser were the most prolific designers of Canadian Pacific in the 1930s. Although their styles are individual, the silkscreen stencils encouraged the use of flat colors and simple shapes that resulted in a recognizable aesthetic.

Foreigners and Canadians came to identify these posters’ images of stunningly beautiful landscapes - the untamed forests, vast mountains, and expansive lakes - with not only the Canadian Pacific Railways, as the company's name persistently appeared on all publicity pieces, but also with Canada itself. Thus for some decades, CPR advertising shaped how people saw Canada, both at home and around the world.

Note: this text is largely based on Marc H. Choko, Canadian Pacific. Creating a Brand, Building a Nation, Callisto Publishers, 2015

Marc H. Choko is professor emeritus at the School of Design of Universite de Quebec a Montreal and an author, lecturer, and exhibition curator in the field of posters and graphic design.


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