Not quite since its inception, but from not so long after, the London Underground has been a place for art and design. The Paris Metro had its distinctive art nouveau entrances and lettering from the outset, though Parisians complained about it at the time. But the first London tube lines, the Metropolitan, in 1863 and the City & Southern, now part of the Northern line, in 1890, were built by different, private, companies so had different livery and no common architecture.
It was not until the 1908 and the arrival of Frank Pick as publicity and marketing officer of the Underground Electric Railway of London (UERL) that London Underground began to get its distinctive ‘look’. Determined to establish a brand, Pick commissioned a standard alphabet and the famous London Underground roundel, both still used today. The typeface, by Edward Johnston, is now known as Johnston san serif. As he rose through the ranks of the company and its successors Pick took responsibility for increasing passenger numbers and used posters extolling the virtues of the various locations on the tube to encourage people to use it.
The first tube stations were overwhelmed by advertising, with posters of different sizes and huge billboards often eclipsing the names of the stations. In the late nineteenth century W Gunn Gwennet, a railway advertising illustrator wrote ‘So thickly placarded are the stations… that it is not uncommon to hear two countrymen arguing whether they have arrived at Vinolia or Willing. It is thought that the guards on the Central London Railway shout out ‘Next station Pears Soap, Beecham’s Pills, Marblearch, Bovril…’.
Pick standardised the size of posters on the tube, ensuring that they never overawed the name roundel and maps. He commissioned the best graphic artists of the day to design the posters, within strictly set design parameters. These included Graham Sutherland, Edward Bawden, George Morrow (the cartoonist), Dora Batty, Laura Knight, Enid Marx, a young Zandra Rhodes and sisters Anna and Doris Zinkeisen. Ahead of his time in more ways than one, Pick used his patronage to promote women artists, over 150 of them, something celebrated in Poster Girls, London Transport Museum‘s latest exhibition (until January 2019, free with the price of admission ).
Station architecture also received Pick’s attention and in 1924 he commissioned architect Charles Holden to design the now distinctive modernist station buildings, with their simple elegant lines, central glass ticket selling booths and glass domed ceilings, lit at night by spherical lights. Specific lines had trademarks, like the ox-blood coloured tiles for centrally situated Northern line stations, and, when new lines or line extensions were planned Pick ensured they were treated homogeneously.
He also commissioned Holden to design the LU headquarters building above St James’ Park station, which is a gem of art deco. ( Tours of the building are available and I can heartily recommend them ). On its exterior was Day and Night by Jacob Epstein which drew much criticism for its primitive style and nudity – Pick threatened to resign rather than have Holden remove the sculptures. They stayed, as did Eric Gill’s Winds. The building won the RIBA medal in 1931. Also in 1931 came Harry Beck’s iconic map, based on the principles of a wiring diagram and copied by underground systems the world over.
There was new art on the platforms too, with tile work murals commissioned to indicate which station the passenger had arrived at. Edward Bawden’s Victoria, Eduard Paolozzi’s Tottenham Court Road and David Gentleman’s Charing Cross are examples. By the 1970, however, there was little new art being commissioned and it wasn’t until Art on the Underground was introduced in 1986 that London Underground became a patron of art once again. Long may it continue.