Cuneo is quite simply our favourite artist of all time. He may not be the greatest artist that ever lived, but he painted what we liked. Steam engines. He had an enormous portfolio of every subject under the sun. He was employed to paint commercial pictures for board rooms.
But, when he was commissioned to paint the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II he became truly famous. But despite all that acclaim, he is still best know as the greatest railway painter of all time. A subjective judgement, since David Shepherd was also a wonderful railway artist. But he is remembered for his elephants, whereas Cuneo is firmly remembered for his fantastically energetic steam trains. This story starts at a former bus garage in Clapham.
Many years ago, the Museum of British Transport was housed in a former bus garage in Clapham. Bobby loved it and was mortified when its closure was announced in 1973. It was full of mostly London Transport historic vehicles, together with some of our most famous preserved steam engines. Including Mallard, that still holds the world speed record for a steam engine at 126mph.
So it was inevitable that Bobby would have to pay one last visit to his favourite museum. Sadly wondering what would happen to all those wonderful machines. Would he ever see them again?
Just 29 then, and a bit brassic lint, he was desperate to buy something to remember the day and the Museum. So he sent himself a FINAL DAY commemorative envelope. And here it is.
But then, on the same counter, the Museum had some last day special offers. Including a wonderful poster of a steam engine. Back then, he had never heard of Terence Cuneo. But he had certainly heard of “Evening Star”, the very last steam engine built for British Railways. If you are interested in the history of this engine, it is all here.
(We have seen the engine many times in recent years on our regular visits to the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York).
Back in 1973, Bobby seems to remember the poster was just £2. It was so exciting. Despite his then wife’s reservations, he decided to get it framed. Heat treated, to save having glass and a cheap white frame, was not a great success. But nevertheless it assumed a place of honour in the lounge at Saffrons, our home in Dorking. By then he had heard all about The MOUSE. In later years, Cuneo had a mouse hidden in his pictures.
Children and grown ups loved looking for that mouse. Until one day ‘er indoors succeeded in getting the picture relegated to the spare bedroom. And then the loft.
But then Terence Cuneo died in 1996 and suddenly, much older now, Bobby’s interest in the artist was rekindled until it became as prominent as it still is today.
He learned that the NRM was to run a big exhibition of the railway paintings of Terence Cuneo and vowed to go. Borrowing his son’s company RAV4, he drove all the way to York and back in one day just to see these paintings. It became far more than that. All the steam engines from Clapham and many more had come to the NRM. Mallard et al. The buses had landed up in the London Transport Museum and warehouse at Covent Garden and Acton. All wonderful places to visit. All the subject of many stories in Mindfully Bertie.
Seeing the original paintings was so memorable. Much bigger in real life and bursting with energy. He started to wish he had a really nice Cuneo painting, but saved it until he moved to Laurel Cottage.
One day, he went to an exhibition of Railway Artists at Worthing Town Hall. They had just one original Cuneo, that stood out a mile. It seemed to be bursting out of the wall with unbridled energy.
And then he learned of a Fine Art Company that had collaborated with the great man in his final years to produce a number of signed Limited Editions. Beautifully framed. And just affordable. “South Wales Pullman” came to Laurel Cottage. Oh how he loves that picture. So much so, that it had pride of place in the matrimonial bedroom and Diddley always maintained she loved it too. Left on his own, it has migrated to the front room in a place of honour. Needs re-framing, as it has slipped slightly as you can see.
A little while later Andrew, Bobby’s son, had a significant birthday. Forty was it? The Fine Art Company was still operating, but the prints were much reduced in availability. Bobby bought Andrew “Brooklands”. Significant, many years later, if you read the Brooklands story in Mindfully Bertie. Another beautiful Cuneo, showing his versatility beyond steam engines.
It came as a surprise in the middle of Covid to find Andrew in ruthless mood getting rid of unwanted possessions. (Something his dad clearly hasn’t succumbed to). Declaring he had never liked the picture and would I like it back? YES PLEASE. And so it came back to Laurel Cottage, still in its original bubble wrap.
Bobby checked a fine art auction site and was pleasantly surprised to find how much this Limited Edition was worth. For it is not only signed by Cuneo, but many other celebrities associated with Brooklands. We are still members there and cannot wait for that museum to reopen.
Back working at the Highways Agency in the nineties Muriel, a civil engineer, had heard of Bobby’s trip to York. Would I like a couple of Cuneo prints from his commercial artist days. Prints that had been in a boardroom somewhere or other. And they came to Laurel Cottage.
Whenever we go to Whitby and Yorkshire in general, we have always gone by train in recent years. It has always led to a last day at the NRM in York. Sometimes more posters have landed up at Laurel Cottage. Some part of his poster gallery in the garden room at the foot of the back garden. Here’s just one.
The NRM is the home of Cuneo’s largest ever painting. A very famous picture of Waterloo station in 1967. During museum refurbishment it was damaged and had to be restored. It’s a painting that you can stand in front of for ages. There is so much detail. And, of course, a mouse.
It was most appropriate that a statue of the artist was commissioned and unveiled at Waterloo Station by Princess Anne in 2004.
Over the years, Waterloo station has seen constant development. Cheap retail outlets were jammed right up against it. As much as Network Rail revered the statue, they couldn’t be sure that it wouldn’t be moved in future. With Network Rail’s help, the statue was moved to the Royal Engineers at Brompton Barracks. Another historic site with a museum we must visit “one day”. The story of the statue is here.
Over the years, Bobby has collected books and other memorabilia – including the catalogue for an exhibition in Pall Mall in 1988. That catalogue ended up with Carole Cuneo (daughter) in 2003 and in early 2021 to Bobby via eBay. It was very expensive, but a work of art and described pictures loaned to the exhibition by Her Majesty herself. Disappointingly for Bobby, it was devoid of steam engines. Even more disappointing, despite its size he can’t find it. Silly old sod, but he had already taken some photographs and here they are:
In 1985, Cuneo was commissioned by the Royal Mail to produce a set of stamps. No, the first day covers are not his. But the jigsaw puzzles are.
And finally, what did happen to that wonderful picture of Evening Star from 1973? Well, he took the frame off to leave the mounted picture, and it is “in store”. Destined for the garden room. Probably.
Lighting a Candle for Diddley