From creator to commuter

The stories behind London Underground’s classic posters

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We might complain about all the advertising that we’re subjected to across London today, but take a look at images of the capital from the mid 19th century, and it’s apparent that things could be far worse. Few illustrations were used then and instead the city was coated in letterpress messages, all in bold text. Certain developments – particularly a growth in production and technology, as well as the influence of experimental poster design from France – soon precipitated the arrival of pictorial posters, however, and by 1908, when Frank Pick became Publicity Officer for the Underground Group (as London Underground was then known), artistic poster work was very much in vogue.

Pick (who went on to become managing director of the Underground Group and later chief executive of the London Passenger Transport Board) recognised the potential for advertising to both convey information and also to encourage passengers to form a more emotional link with the Under­ground, which at the time of his arrival was facing bankruptcy. And so began one of the most signifi­cant design relationships in British history, with Pick laying the groundwork for a rich heritage of art and design at London Underground that continues to this day. Pick’s legacy forms a key part of a new exhibition currently on show at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. Entitled The Art of The Poster – A Century of Design, the exhibition reveals the original works of art that were created for some of the most iconic lu posters, as well as archive documentation explaining the stories and processes behind their creation.

One of the most revealing things about viewing the original artworks is seeing the ways in which they were manipulated for use in poster form. Alfred Leete’s painting The Roads are Never Up on the Underground (1928), for example, shows an old man sitting before a brazier, with a cat’s head amusingly poking in from the side. In the poster version, Leete’s image remains intact, however the colours have been completely changed to a more uniform orange, as if reflecting the glow of the fire.

Likewise, the colour in Alfred France’s poster The Way For All (1911) is startlingly different from the original artwork – a rich green has been intro­duced, with the tiled wall far more emphasised. Intriguingly, the gaze of the central figure of the painting has also been altered so she stares into the middle distance rather than out at the viewer. According to an essay by Catherine Flood in London Transport Posters: A Century of Art and Design, a book published to accompany the exhibition, this is to give the woman in question an ‘everywoman’ quality. “She is a bold modern constituent of public travel and her disengaged gaze assures absolute propriety,” writes Flood. “Rendered in a bright, illustrative style, these posters proclaim that the Underground is suitable for every­one – a diverse, heterosocial, even glamorous environ­ment, but one that is not socially challenging.”

This attention to detail is typical of the approach that appears to have been taken with all the London Under­ground posters. At the height of the poster era on the Underground, in the 1930s under Pick, around 40 designs were being commissioned from artists each year, though this had dwindled to six or seven artist commissioned works by the late 1970s. Some of the most fascinating archive material in the exhibition explains the complex commissioning process that took place.

Another book that is being published to coincide with the exhibition, Poster Journeys, looks specifi­cally at the work of Abram Games for the London Underground. As is revealed in the book, Games always travelled by public transport, and set himself the impres­sive task of aiming to produce six new ideas during any journeys he took. Sketches show how his initial doodles evolved to become iconic designs. A sheet of sketches reveals how Games’ experiments for the logo for the Festival of Britain in 1951 developed, for example. He won the competition to design the emblem in 1948 and his logo was seen everywhere.

Similarly interesting is Games’ ongoing corres­pondence with the publicity officers at London Underground, which charmingly includes a letter from 1939 where he writes: “May I ask if there is a possibility of my doing any work for you?”, revealing that even the greatest designers begin with such humble requests. Elsewhere is an entertaining exchange from 1951 revealing Games’ dissat­is­faction with the colour reproduction of one his posters.

“Dear Mr Hutchinson,” he writes. “Please have a good look at the enclosed print with the proof passed. The light green side of the buses is reading almost in reverse and is nowhere near the strength of the proof green.”

The book contains Hutchinson’s response: “My dear Abram…. Whilst it is true that on some copies the green is too light, it is also true that on other copies the green is too dark. Waterlow’s admit their mistake, but unfortunately there is no possibility of re-running. I can assure you that if there was any practicable way of correcting this error we would have found it. I think you can nevertheless be satisfied that only an expert like yourself may possibly be disappointed. The reception of the poster generally has been quite exceptional, and everybody here is delighted with it.” Proof that, whatever the era, flattery is the tried and tested method of dealing with artists.

In the Art of the Poster exhibition, some of the most revealing archive material relates to artworks that never went on to be used. According to Claire Dobbin, who has curated the exhibition alongside David Bownes, Frank Pick’s method was to commission as many as twice the number of designs as were needed, leading to many unused works. “These would be from a wide range of established commercial artists, fine artists and promising new talent,” Dobbin explains. “Pick’s decision on whether they were used was based on ‘fitness for purpose’, rather than his own taste or the status of the artist. Some were rejected because they failed to meet the brief, others were dropped due to changes in national circumstances – for example, the promotion of leisure travel ceased during wartime. Many, however, simply weren’t quite right!”

Amongst those in the latter category, is a striking painting of the Greenwich Observatory by Eric Ravilious in 1937, which unfortunately received short shrift from the publicity officer Christian Barman. “Although I greatly like the drawing that I have here,” wrote Barman to Ravilious, “I think it is completely useless for the purpose of attract­ing traffic to Greenwich. Kensal Green Cemetery with a stiff east wind blowing would be just about equivalent in traffic value.”

Also revealed for the first time in the exhibition is a lengthy correspondence between the artist John Nash and the publicity officer Harold Hutchinson in 1950, where they discuss a painting by Nash that again never saw the light of day. In one letter, from March 11, 1950, Nash expresses his concerns about the work. “I have now practically finished the poster except for fiddling about and wondering if

I can improve it and worrying about whether it is good enough and will give any satisfaction,” he writes. He expresses particular concern over creating a landscape painting in portrait shape. Looking at the painting now (shown on page 34), it seems incredible that it remained unused, and lies testament to the fact that a great work of art does not always make a great poster.

The exhibition also reveals moments of contro­versy – when a poster is given the go-ahead by the commissioners but caused outrage with the public. One such example is Edward Wadsworth’s Modernist poster for the Lord Mayor’s Show in 1936, which, in reference to the theme of the Show– Defence and Rearmament – featured a Vickers heavy machine gun and a Lewis automatic rifle prominently. The poster immediately received much press attention, with Daily Mirror journalist ‘Cassandra’, writing: “If we are to show the beauty of the engines of war to a peacefully travelling public, why not have the guts to show the effects of these instruments. Or would pictures of bullet-riddled bodies be a trifle unseemly?” The posters were immediately withdrawn, although a London Transport Board official defended the work by saying: “We felt that the design, produced by Mr Wadsworth, was not only a very good design in itself – regarded purely as a design – but was also a grim statement and a grim reminder of the significance of modern warfare.” Wadsworth himself then aired his views in the Daily Express, commenting: “If people object to this poster, they must object to the Lord Mayor’s Show. Better cancel the whole thing. We shall see if any papers run pictures of the Show. You’d better not, I suppose? After all, what’s a little poster?”

Both the Art of the Poster exhibition and the two books published to coincide with it plug into a certain nostalgia for an era when the poster was king in advertising – a time that has long since past. With the recent outbreak of plasma screens on the Underground, which pessimists may see as bringing the worst of tv advertising below ground, it is hard not to reminisce over a time when artists were working alongside the lu officials to brighten up our tube journeys. Thankfully, this heritage still remains in the Art on the Underground programme, which has seen contemporary artists including David Shrigley, Jeremy Deller and Mark Titchner create artworks to appear on the Underground system (see cr August 08). Pick’s prolific commis­sioning remains an anomaly, however. “In Pick’s era the posters did so many things,” says Claire Dobbin. “They instilled goodwill in the travellers, as well as presenting something. The amount of time and effort that went into the publicity programme was remarkable, it was just one man and his vision. But advertising has changed now.”

The Art of the Poster – A Century of Design is at the London Transport Museum until March 31, 2009