retours June-July 2014
A major exhibition on the Orient Express is currently on show in Paris. retours presents a brief history of the famous luxury train by taking a closer look at 10 posters along with matching brochures and photos, partly from the exhibition and partly from own collection.
These graphic witnesses tell the story of a century of Orient Express trains. They provide travel itineraries as well as depictions of the train's destinations. In addition, their changing design reflects the changing spirit of the times.
On paper, the journey often looked better than in reality. The Orient appeared to be even more exotic on posters. Brochures promised a direct connection to Cairo and Baghdad, but in reality the Orient Express did not go that far.
by Arjan den Boer
The first Orient Express left Paris in 1883. It was an initiative of Wagons-Lits in collaboration with French, German, Austro-Hungarian and Romanian railways. The last stage to Constantinople was a crossing over the Black Sea, as the railway between Belgrade and Sofia was not yet finished. In 1888 the track was ready: in 66 hours Paris was directly connected to the Ottoman capital.
In 1888 the first Orient Express poster was co-published by French and English railways. Jules Chéret was one of the first designers of illustrated posters, preceding even Toulouse-Lautrec. His poster depicts the train at Constantinople and a route map which – somewhat deceptive – also features London.
The first brochure was published in 1887, shortly before the direct connection with Constantinople was established. The schedule featured a connection to a Black Sea steamer at Varna.
In 1890, Paul Nadar took the oldest known photograph of the arrival of the Orient Express at its final destination.
With its direct connection, the Orient Express became a fast alternative to boat travel for diplomats, artists and wealthy tourists. The Wagons-Lits coaches became increasingly comfortable and the on-board service was legendary.
An unprecedented colorful 1891 poster was created by the Spanish painter Rafael de Ochoa y Madrazo (1858-1935). Constantinople's Süleymaniye Mosque and two veiled harem women represented the Orient. The poster was printed without black text, so that this could be added later.
The First World War put an end to the first golden age of the Orient Express.
Wagons-Lits continued to use De Ochoa's image for a long time. In 1912 it published a brochure with the now 20-year-old design on the front.
Photos from this period are rare. A 1900 lantern slide shows an American lady during a stop of the Orient Express at Niš (Serbia).
After World War I, the map of Europe was redrawn. The Treaty of Versailles forbade the Orient Express to run to Turkey via Germany and Austria. A direct link between the defeated Mittelmächte was undesirable. Therefore, a new train was introduced: the Simplon Orient Express. It made use of the Simplon tunnel which had connected Switzerland and Italy since 1906. Via northern Italy and the Balkans, Constantinople was reached.
The 1921 poster differs from previous ones by its bright Art Deco style. Illustrator Roger Broders mainly worked for PLM, the railway company operating the Simplon Express at its departure from Paris.
In the 1920s and 30s Wagons-Lits issued many luxuriously printed, lavishly illustrated brochures to attract affluent travelers.
A striking photo moment occurred in 1929 when the Simplon Orient Express was stuck in the snow for five days. Agatha Christie based her book on it.
With the advent of the Simplon Orient Express, Athens became a new final destination in addition to Constantinople (named Istanbul after 1928). In Niš, Serbia, the train was split up. Via Skopje and Thessaloniki – conquered by Greece during the Balkan Wars – through-coaches ran to Athens.
The poster that Joseph de La Nézière designed in 1926 shows the Simplon Orient Express at the foot of the Acropolis, with Greek gods riding a celestial chariot above. Colors and border were inspired by ancient Greek red-figure pottery. The promotional materials picked up on Western interest in Greek antiquity.
In Wagons-Lits brochures, Greece was also invariably symbolized by the Acropolis.
A popular subject for Simplon Orient Express photographs was the 194 meter long Gorgopotamos railway bridge. This bridge would be destroyed by the Greek resistance during World War II.
The (Simplon) Orient Express never went beyond Istanbul. Still, in the late 1920s posters appeared showing destinations in the Middle East. To get there, travelers had to cross the Bosphorus at Istanbul and board another train at Haydarpaşa station. The railways of Ataturk's new Turkey could make use of the Anatolian Railways and the still unfinished Baghdad Railway, constructed by German investors at the time of the last sultans.
In 1927 Wagons-Lits was allowed to run sleeping cars to Aleppo in northern Syria. Joseph de La Nézière – an Orientalist painter by origin – depicted the crowds at the foot of Aleppo's Citadel on his poster.
A 1926-27 Turkish brochure marks the annexation of the Anatolian Railways by the Turkish State Railways. Until the 1928 reforms, Turkey was still using the Arabic script.
Railways in eastern Turkey had been damaged during World War I. The bridge at Hacikiri was provisionally restored.
In 1930 the Turkish railways and Wagons-Lits introduced the Taurus Express as an extension to the Simplon Orient Express. It was named after the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey. At Aleppo, the train was split up. One part ran to Lebanon with a connection to Egypt. The other part went to Tel Ziouane with a connection to Baghdad. Passengers were transported to Kirkuk by automobile(!). The final stage to Baghdad was accomplished by narrow gauge railway.
It was not until 1940 that the direct connection to Baghdad was completed. Still, on a 1931 poster the circuitous journey was called safe, quick and economical. Roger Broders depicted the Arch of Ctesiphon near Baghdad.
A brochure for the Simplon Orient and Taurus Express boasted that these trains linked up three continents – albeit with some improvising.
In 1933 the Baghdad Railway was in use down to Tel Ziouane in Syria. There, automobiles were waiting to take the passengers to Kirkuk in Iraq.
A journey on the Simplon Orient Express to the pyramids of Egypt was only possible on paper. At Istanbul passengers had to transfer to the Taurus Express, which did not go further than Tripoli in Lebanon. From there, a Rolls Royce bus carried the travellers to Haifa. The Palestinian Railways provided service via Gaza to Kantara on the Suez Canal. Because there was no bridge there yet, a final crossing and transfer followed. From London, it took five trains, three ships and a bus, but after seven days passengers would actually arrive in Cairo.
On the 1930 poster created by J. Touchet a red line seems to run all the way from London to Cairo. Only upon closer inspection dotted lines are visible.
After the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, ancient Egypt gained a lot of interest. The Wagons-Lits brochure by J. Briquemann picked up on this.
From Lebanon to Palestine passengers traveled by Rolls Royce bus, which was partly driving on the beach in the absence of roads!
Between the two wars another train service was initiated alongside the Simplon Orient Express: the Arlberg Orient Express. It traversed northern Switzerland and Austria. Its route ran in-between the classic Orient Express route and the new Simplon route. This link to Vienna was initially meant for military personnel and diplomats who had to circumvent Germany.
The train ran every other day, alternating with the classic Orient Express to Budapest. There were also through-carriages to Istanbul, which were linked to the Simplon Orient Express at Belgrade.
In 1931 the Austrian railways released a poster designed by Alois Mitschek (1889-1974).
Arlberg Orient Express brochures usually also promoted the classic Orient Express, which ran through southern Germany. Their timetables were closely interwoven.
It is not easy to determine wether it was the Arlberg or 'ordinary' Orient Express that was photographed at Vienna's Westbahnhof in 1931.
After World War II, the Simplon Orient Express lost its glamor. Its rolling stock was outdated, the wealthy preferred the airplane and the Cold War hindered the passage across the Balkans. The travel time increased rather than decreased.
Wagons-Lits did not issue promotional materials for the Simplon Orient Express any more. The 1947 poster by Walter Spinner was released by the Commission Romande de la Ligne du Simplon, which promoted accessibility to French-speaking Switzerland. This explains why the Swiss section is magnified. By now the continuous lines to Baghdad and Cairo were factually correct, but around 1950 tensions rose in the Middle East.
In France, Switzerland and Italy the train was now hauled electrically, as promotional prints show. The time saved as a result was lost again on the Balkans.
Before the war the Simplon Orient Express consisted exclusively of luxury Wagons-Lits carriages. But in 1950 it even included local third class coaches on the Balkans.
In 1977, the last direct train left Paris for Istanbul. Publicity about the discontinuation of the Orient Express resulted in a revival. A wealthy American bought old Wagons-Lits cars and had them restored for his Venice-Simplon Orient Express: a luxury 'rail cruise' between London, Paris and Venice. Once a year, the VSOE runs all the way to Istanbul.
As the train had become retro, so did the posters. The VSOE engaged Pierre Fix-Masseau, a poster artist since 1928. He designed a series of Art Deco-style posters, but their font and colors reveal that they date from around 1980. The poster depicting Lake Geneva shows a paper reality only; despite its name the VSOE does not run on the Simplon line!
In its ads the VSOE referenced nostalgic and romantic sentiments. Yet the artful photographs unmistakably can be dated around 1988.
For practical reasons, the VSOE does not use the original Simplon line to Venice. It runs via Zurich and Innsbruck instead – part of the Arlberg Express route.
Posters and brochures for the Orient Express 1888-1988
Orient Express exhibition
until August 31, 2014
Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris
Catalogue Il était une fois l'Orient Express, Institut du monde Arabe, Paris 2014
Jürgen Klein und und Albert Mühl, Reisen in Luxuszügen. Die Internationale Schlafwagen-Gesellschaft Freiburg 2006
Jürgen Lodeman und Manfred Pohl, Die Bagdadbahn Mainz 1989
Werner Sölch, Orient-Express. Glanzzeit und Niedergang eines Luxuszuges Düsseldorf 1974