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Corporate art commissions can be very good contracts, since they usually lead on to the requirement of signed limited fine art prints for the commissioning company to sell to their clientele. The Venice Simplon Orient Express Train Company was most definitely one of those companies. It all started from the usual hard work of trying to talk to the person at the company, that could make the decision to commission art work.

After much diplomatic discussions with various employees of the company, I was surprised to find myself talking to the Merchandise Director of the Orient Express! After I did my selling pitch, I was, yet again, surprised to hear him invite me to the VSOE headquarters, which were situated next to Waterloo Bridge in London, in the Sea Containers company headquarters. Soon I discovered that the train company was actually owned by an American, James Sherwood – it was his own full-size ‘train set’.

The following information is from an article by the Telegraph correspondent Elizabeth Grice, dated 27th Apr 2012:

'In 1977, Sherwood bought at auction two shabby pre-War first-class sleeping carriages without an engine, remnants of the fabled Orient Express train. He admits he wasn't a railway enthusiast chasing some boyhood dream but was intrigued by the surge of nostalgia for the train's last trip. It gave him an idea.

The previous year, he had bought the loss-making Hotel Cipriani in Venice for less than £1 million "on a whim". The British were dotty about historic trains and they loved Venice. Why not refurbish the Orient Express and operate it from London to Paris to Venice? Sherwood restored them to their original grandeur, down to the last Art Deco flower spray piece of marquetry. The bill was $31m (£20m) and the project, like most of Sherwood's, vastly and irrelevantly over

"When I bought those two old carriages in Monte Carlo," he says, "people thought I was slightly crazy. They said it was a fun idea but it wouldn't work. The common wisdom was that luxury rail travel was dead. Now it's fully booked every year and the carriages – every one different – are in better condition then they have ever been. Concorde has come and gone and the Orient-Express is still here. It was a good hunch.’

Mr Sherwood's 'train set' lives on, but in early 2006, I had no idea that Sea Containers was heading for a fall at the end of the year. The merchandise director listened to my reasons why they (a massive company) needed me (a very, very small tiddler), across an enormous long and intimidating large conference table.

I really thought the meeting wasn't going well, until after I finished my pitch for work, the director calmly said, 'OK, I'd like you to paint two large pictures of the Orient Express at two different locations in England – I'll send you the details later in the week'. Wow! I hadn't expected that! Not just one painting but two!

'Choo Choo... ' I repeated as I got the train from Paddington back to Oxford.

The details about each picture arrived as promised. The list of details commissioned me to paint the first picture showing the Orient Express arriving at Victoria Station, and the second where the train line runs along the south coast before diving into a tunnel, at a place called 'The Warren'.

To assemble all the reference material for the two paintings I had to initially take pictures of the two locations. Arriving at the Warren, which was a spectacular location; I believe it was one of those sections of lines, washed away by one of our excessive storms. I felt very privileged having a special pass that allowed me to go next to the railway tracks with Inter-City expresses were flashing past - extremely close to me; the drivers, for the micro-second they saw me, definitely looked puzzled that a train-spotter was down at the tracks snapping away.


Next, I had to go to Southall, on the outskirts of London to take the photos of the steam train – a magnificent green, 4-6-2 (which means 4 small wheels at the front, 6 large wheels in the centre, and two small ones at the rear, below the cab). When I arrived at the marshalling yard, I knew the loco had to be somewhere in it.

Hunting about for this steam train and having no success finding it, I finally had to ask where it was.

   'It's in that engine shed over there,’ said the workman, 'the one with the smoke coming out of the vents.’

   Yes, there was the shed and smoke, so I headed for it in the beautiful sunshine. After parking the car I ventured into the darkness of the vast shed and saw the magnificent beast that I had come to photo; even in the large volume of the shed, it looked huge and impossible to photograph in the gloom of the interior.


Before I got to the train, I saw the driver nimbly climbed down from the cab and shout at me.

     'Are you Pete Sissons, the artist?’

   'Yep, that's right.' I replied, surprised he knew my name. The driver carried on.

    'You've come to take pictures of the loco, yes? Well, it's ******* rubbish in here – far too dark for photos. Climb up on the footplate and I'll take it outside in the sunshine, then you take some good pictures.’

     I spluttered to myself, ‘On the footplate, moving the train out of the shed for me?' Wow!’

   Again, I felt absolutely privileged to be in such a position, as Bert opened the loco’s speed regulator, and the steam loco issued forth beautiful sounding, and slow… chuff… chuff… chuffs, which echoed throughout the steel-clad shed. The chuff, chuff, chuffs got louder and faster, as we moved out of the gloom of the engine shed and into the beautiful sunshine – absolute music to my ears! It was a short ride out to the sunlight, but what a ride!

     Bert left me to snap away to my heart’s content, with that massive engine just posing for me in the bright sunlight. I left my engine sunning itself in the yard, with me feeling very, very happy with myself.

The final part of my research for the two contract paintings, was to go to Swindon station where the special Orient Express carriages could be photographed. Each carriage has its own name: AUDRY - CYGNUS - GWEN - IBIS -  IONE - She was featured in my print 'Lucille Returns' - MINERVA - PERSEUS -PHOENIX - VERA - ZENA - was used in “Agatha” about Agatha Cristie in 1976.

Now that Sea Containers and their offices next to the famous OXO building have gone, the whereabouts of the paintings are unknown to me – I wonder where they are?

The 'Steaming through the Warren' fine art print, and 'Lucille Returns' (to Victoria Station) were originally available from the merchandise section of Venice Simplon Orient Express Train Company.