The Artists of The Railway Series

The Railway Series Artists

An integral part of the Railway Series was the artwork that went into it, here we examine the artists who made it what it is...

William Middleton

Edward and Gordon in the 1st edition
Gordon and Edward as they first appeared

The artist caused a whole heap of trouble for future, including the Henry difficulties giving the character the wrong wheel arrangement, as well as having TWO tunnels in The Sad Story of Henry as opposed to one.  The illustrations provided by Middleton were replaced by reproductions by C Reginald Dalby instead in 1949, with the originals being discarded and lost to time, consigned primarily to early editions of the book and being very rare to find afterward.  However, the mistakes made by Middleton were picked up by Dalby, and so the problems continued onward...!

Edward, Gordon and Henry in the 1st edition
The original depiction of Henry and Edward taking over the Express

William Middleton's illustrations for The Three Railway Engines were soon after replaced by C Reginald Dalby's, which have gone on to become the more recognised and associated illustrations for the book.  Middleton's illustrations were basically very simple, and little reflected any kind of real locomotive, making the characters look very much toy-like as opposed to the desired effect Awdry wished, being the locomotives appearing as real as possible.

The reason for this was that Middleton was an inexperienced illustrator with little idea on scale or drawing people, who had been hired through Edmund Ward's printing connections.  Each of the engines had a flat-disc face, which suspiciously looked like it had been drawn around a coin!

UPDATE 2016-JUL-27: New information has come to light from a reader of the Leicester Mercury about this artist.  The Rev. T. Robin Martin of Birstall shared that William Middleton's 2nd floor studio was over a shop on Halford Street, Leicester. Middleton worked at this location prior to World War II until the 1950s. Believing that no one would be interested is stories about filthy steam engines, "Bill" did not put too much effort into illustrating The Three Railway Engines.

Reginald Payne

Thomas the Tank Engine
Payne's iconic image from Thomas and the Trucks

Responsible for the completion of illustrations for one book, Thomas The Tank Engine, Reginald Payne was used by Edmund Ward in place of William Middleton, who had proved largely inadequate to the task in the eyes of the author.

Reginald Payne slavishly followed Awdry's sketches in order to complete the quota.  Like the mistakes of Middleton before him, he had set another character's appearance for the duration - Thomas!  Originally based on a child's toy of a different appearance, the artist instead made Thomas into an E2 0-6-0 tank engine of the Southern region.  Content with this, Awdry allowed it to continue on!

The first illustration of Thomas
The first illustration of Thomas

Payne's illustrations were more bold and eye-catching to the reader than the previous book, and he's very much responsible today for creating the most famous illustrations of the entire series, as well as his hand in creating an iconic character.  However, he went uncredited for it much like William Middleton before him, and continues to do so in subsequent reprints of the volume.
Awdry found himself very satisfied with the standard of work set by Payne, despite there being inaccuracies in terms of point work and track, which they hoped to improve for new editions of the book.  These were "improved" also by C Reginald Dalby in 1950 for a new edition of the book.The artist was due to be asked back for the 3rd book, James The Red Engine in 1948, but by then had suffered a nervous breakdown following issues in the Admiralty, and could not resume his duties effectively.

C Reginald Dalby - The Man Who Set The Style

Gordon and James
Gordon and James

C Reginald Dalby was the third artist of Awdry's books, but the first long-standing illustrator, and the one that people tend to associate the most with the Railway Series books.  However, Dalby did not prove popular with the author from the very beginning.  Initially, Awdry had hoped to work with a local school headmistress on new sketches for James the Red Engine, however, it was the choice of Edmund Ward to employ C Reginald Dalby on the job of the illustrations, declining the offer set by Wilbert.  And so, with his hands tied, Awdry felt forced and trapped into accepting the situation.

Edward puffs out of the shed again
Reillustration from Edward's Day Out

A graduate of Leicester College of Art, Dalby recalled his time working with Awdry as "Not of the Gilbert and Sullivan kind".  Awdry found the new artist to be "a pleasant enough fellow" and was hopeful of Dalby to draw from life, an opportunity not seized by the artist.  Wilbert criticized his lack of railway interest, which is largely where his illustrations suffered - particularly because to Dalby, "One engine was like another!".  While the fact remains that Dalby had "accurate knowledge of rail techniques and engines", his artistic styling often led to problems for the author, such as the look of Edward and Percy, two engines seemingly built on wholly original designs unlike those of any engine in the United Kingdom.

Identity crisis for Henry
Henry in blue livery with square buffers!

Henry's appearance also caused numerous problems for the author too, particularly when the character was in a blue livery, when he would often be confused with Gordon.  The situation became so bad that Awdry initially attempted to write Henry out, but later came up with the idea of revising the character's appearance instead to an LMS Black Five through The Flying Kipper storyline.  He was often prone to mistakes in the artwork, such as Henry having square buffers as opposed to Gordon, and distorting the size of the locomotives, rendering them almost toy-like in the eyes of the author, as opposed to the real locomotives he had hoped for.

Gordon is about to go off the rails...
Edward, Gordon and James

Dalby's gem-like illustrations were powerful and eye-catching for the time the books were being produced in.  At a time when colour was a rarity within books, (Particularly following the Great War) Dalby's illustrations were something special and an attraction for potential readers to the little multi-coloured books, and despite the innacurracies and difficulties with the author, Dalby remains a firm favourite with fans of the Railway Series, his images setting the style and capturing the mood of the formative years of Sodor.

Henry following his rebuild at Crewe
Problem solved - Henry!

Dalby's complacency could be put down to the fact that he didn't believe in the longevity of the books, telling Awdry at one point that he didn't believe they would last more than a few years and that they would most likely die out in a few years time as a throwaway fad.  He couldn't have been more wrong.  He even tried his hand at writing a book in 1955 featuring his own character - "Tubby the Tugboat" - in Tales of Flitterwick Harbour and credited them as being by "The artist of the Railway Series".  In spite of Dalby's hopes to see the stories attain a series with the books, it was not to be.

The Green Caterpillar with red stripes... - Awdry
A constant source of problems - Percy!

Problems occured in the illustrations very regularly with Dalby, and it all came to an abrupt head in 1956 with the publication of a book about Percy.  Eric Marriot often took the liberty when both he and Dalby were based in Leicester to point out errors and have the artist correct them before Awdry saw them.  Technical problems toward the end came to a head in a letter Awdry wrote to Dalby, "I beg, pray and exhort you not to make Percy look like a green caterpillar with red stripes!" - Taking umbridge at that comment, Dalby ended his association with the series and admitted despite feeling sorry to give up illustrating the engines, his patience had worn thin and his assocation with the series came to an end.

Sir Handel and Skarloey at the sheds
Sir Handel and Skarloey

In all fairness, however, despite being known for his mistakes and clashes with Awdry, Dalby had a very daunting task at hand by creating images of a mythical world that existed purely within the mind of the author Wilbert Awdry.  And while the Island of Sodor was still being formed at this time, the artist had very little to go on or work constructively with as a result.  So for that at least, the man can be forgiven, on account of the general standard of work he produced.  C Reginald Dalby died in 1983 at the age of 79 following a short illness.

*With thanks to Jim Gratton, we now have a C. Reginald Dalby Tribute Mini-Site*, where you can find an interview with daughter Kate Holland's memories of her father.

John T Kenney

Gordon crosses the bridge to the Mainland
A shining example of Kenney's real engine style

John Theodore Eardley Kenney (to give him his full name!) took up the job of illustrating the Railway Series after the departure of C Reginald Dalby.  Like his predecessor, he had studied at Leicester College of Art, but unlike him, he had an enthusiam for his work and the appreciation of his author into the bargain!  Kenney was often to be found illustrating locomotives from life, in order to give greater validity in his pictures, in turn they were longer, bigger and more svelte in appearance.  They were also bolder and much more realistic than Dalby's pictures too, with his human characters contributing to that as well in their actions, with people running, pushing barrows, even smoking if you notice the first illustration within The Twin Engines!

Smokers at the Big Station (The Twin Engines)
Not just the engines who puff!

The relationship between the two was much more friendly too.  In their whole eight year working period, Awdry had met Dalby twice in person, found him to be quite aimiable in spite of not liking his work.  He payed several visits to see John Kenney and his wife throughout their time working together.  However, Kenney's association with the series was to be cut short also as he began suffering trouble with his eyesight.  Despite producing some amazing artwork in spite of it for his final book in 1962 - Gallant Old Engine - Kenney did the honourable thing and gave up the ghost.  He died age 61 in 1972, at which time an exhibition of his paintings were shown in Chicago.

Peter and Gunvor Edwards

The Big Diesel at the sheds
The first illustration that Gunvor attempted

Faced with yet another resignation, a new artist had to be employed to take on the role of illustrator for the continuation of the Railway Series.  Eric Marriot decided to ask Swedish born artist - Gunvor Edwards to try her hand at capturing the style that had been set by Dalby.  Believing little to be beyond her, Gunvor started with the illustration of the Diesel standing alongside the engines at the sheds.  Gunvor found it quite difficult concerning the amount of space she had to work with on the picture, and turned to husband Peter to see if he could try and do the pictures.  Although he claims he was unable to imitate the previous style any better than his wife could, Eric Marriot was still happy to allow Peter Edwards to continue, and despite illustrating the further books on his own, he continued to share credit with wife Gunvor.

Trouble at the top...
Lord Harry off at the Summit (Mountain Engines)

Relations between Awdry and his new illustrator went very well from the first meeting, Awdry appreciated Edwards' style of artwork, quoted as saying, "He drew from life and obviously had an affection for the characters."

The illustrator often found himself on "Bus-man's Holidays" where he was going to railways Awdry was needing pictures of real locos and landscapes from.  "At a time in our life," says Edwards, "of short funds and few breaks, the family had an excuse to explore the Welsh Coast, Lakeland, Cornwall and Devon, Sussex and Kent with a steam trip to cap it all!"

Final illustration of Small Railway Engines
Beautiful sunset on the Small Railway

Edwards stayed in dedicated service up until the final book in 1972 - Tramway Engines, and even illustrated The Surprise Packet in 1971, published by Edmund Ward to avail Awdry in his time of writer's block.  It would be fair to say his illustrations were somewhat the inspiration for the 1979/1980 annuals, where the artist - Edgar Hodges - drew and painted in a very similar impressionist style!

In late Summer, 2007 SiF's Troublesome Truck on behalf of SiF was honoured to have received a reply from Peter Edwards which can be read here.

Clive Spong

Arrr matey!
Sir Handel as a pirate!

Clive Spong was again a graduate of Leicester College of Art, like predecessors Dalby and Kenney before him.  Although, unlike them, he was due to work for the son of the author on the reprised Railway Series books written by Christopher Awdry.   Kaye and Ward publishers chose Spong because he was able to incorporate the best bits of all three previous artists – from the eye catching colour that Dalby brought, to the technical accuracy that the Edwards couple and John T Kenney gave to the illustrations.  This would prove a great selling point for the new titles and compliment the style of writing that Christopher was providing, which would be aimed at younger children on the same level as the early Railway Series books.

Gathering of engines at the sheds
Thinking visually and verbally

Previously, little had been disclosed in regards to the working relationship between Christopher and Clive, however, Christopher has commended his ‘superb’ work in The New Collection, an anthology of Christopher Awdry’s Railway Series books published in 2007.  It was because of this that Clive remained throughout the run of Christopher’s books, and was able to return in 2007 for Book 41, illustrating more Railway Series work than any of his predecessors before him.  The author also collaborated with him to an extent, as he tried to find new viewpoints and angles for Clive to draw from, as to avoid repetition in the pictures, always trying “to think visually and verbally.” 

Percy and Toby at the sheds
Percy and Toby at the sheds

Also, unlike his predecessors, he had grown up with the Railway Series books, and held a childhood enthusiasm and appreciation for the characters.  Spong went on to develop a style of his own, incorporating bold colour and strong illustration with ‘accuracy and consistency’, which the Rev. W. Awdry observed and complimented him upon as an artist.  The two worked together on The Reverend’s adaptation of the television story, Thomas’s Christmas Party, which was published prior to the episode’s airing in 1984 - it was also the first time that Tidmouth Sheds had been depicted to the Reverend’s own vision, and was carried over to the following Railway Series stories taking place there.

Iron Duke - moustache and all!
The Iron Duke

Clive was however the first illustrator to break Wilbert's golden rule about engines having no faces outside of Sodor - he did this in book 35 - Thomas and the Great Railway Show - depicting National Collection engines such as Mallard, Duchess of Hamilton, Green Arrow and Iron Duke (complete with big whiskers!) with faces, however, this could be excused given the fact that the stories required Thomas to be able to converse with the others, which would have been all the more difficult had they not had that ability!

Wilbert on the Little Western
Wilbert on the Little Western

Illustrations by Spong never seemed to stay with one style for long, and seemed to evolve throughout the time he was doing them.  Changing from solid and bold, to slightly more water-coloured, with engines having sand-coloured faces as opposed to their usual grey!  The latter books of the series saw a real move away form emulating the previous illustrators and more toward the development and incorporation of his own style into the Railway Series books, shown particularly in the final three that Christopher Awdry wrote before the enforced hiatus by Egmont Books.

Thomas and Victoria at Knapford Junction
The return of the Railway Series in 2007

In the years following 1996, when his services were not required for Railway Series books, Clive's work centered primarily around illustrating for educational books, and did little in the way of children's fiction, however, stated in an interview with Sodor Island in late 2006, that he would return to the Railway Series if the opportunity arose.  And he was as good as his word too!  When the Railway Series returned to a full print run in 2007, Clive was given the opportunity to illustrate the latest addition to the series - No.41 Thomas and Victoria, the first new book to be released in over 11 years, picking up and building on from where he had left off previously all that time ago with some beautiful new artwork.

The four Branch Line Engines
A classic scene redepicted by Spong

Clive also was involved in illustrating several TV Series / Railway Series tie-in books such as Thomas and The Evil Diesel, Thomas' Christmas Party, Thomas and The Missing Christmas Tree and a rewrite by the Reverend Awdry of Thomas Comes To Breakfast. In addition to these, his own style was also emulated by illustrator, Stephen Lings, who was employed to work on two further tie-in books, Thomas and the Hurricane (Chris Awdry) and Thomas & Gordon Off The Rails (Rev. W. Awdry rewrite).

In the fall of 2006, we managed to contact Clive whose insight into his contributions to the Railway Series can be read here.