Two hundred years ago London was the busiest port in the world. The River Thames was the lifeblood of the city, vital to its growth well into the 19th century. The river also provided the fastest means of navigating London’s densely populated streets. Today we tend to consider the Thames more in terms of leisure than we do the geography, transport or industry upon which its history is built. The watermen and steamboat services that once ferried thousands of Londoners from A to B are a distant memory. Even the docks, which for over a century were central to the wealth of the nation and to life in the East End, have become something new; something built in spite of the Thames rather than for or because of it.
For over 100 years London’s transport posters have reflected and endorsed our contemporary image and understanding of the river as a leisure destination. Divorced from all former functions or duty, the poster artist’s river offers entertainment, relaxation and rural retreat. Literally and metaphorically, the river has been rebranded a place to visit ‘by Underground’.
Winding Through the City is the latest poster promoting the river to hit Transport for London’s hoardings. Anne Wilson, this year’s Serco Prize for Illustration winner, joins a long and prestigious line of artists to have designed posters for TfL and its predecessors. Graham Sutherland, Man Ray, Paul Nash and Howard Hodgkin are but a few of the artists represented in London Transport Museum’s collection of over 8,000 original posters and artworks.
In Wilson’s design, transport literally leads the way. Leaving the river in its wake, a red Routemaster bus asserts its authority over any past claim the Thames may have had as London’s most iconic symbol. Graphically, of course, the river emerged from maps and paintings as symbolic of the city long before aerial photography, Google Earth, the opening credits to Eastenders, or indeed the Routemaster. Nowhere is that better illustrated than on the Tube map, where for 80 years it has remained the only topographical link to the real space above ground.
Time and convention have trained us to read and recognise the Thames from left to right. In Wilson’s artwork, however, the river is turned on its head. The redundant Pool of London becomes a pregnant bulge, comparatively and pointedly empty. There are no docks, historic or regenerated. They have been absorbed into the patchwork of synthetic structures upon the land. The natural curves of the river create an incongruous swath of geography, snaking through the manmade city as though having lost its way, or its place at least, within the modern metropolis.
The Underground began commissioning modern graphic posters in 1908. The huge expense of building the Bakerloo, Piccadilly and Hampstead lines, and electrifying the formerly steam operated District Railway, had left the company close to bankruptcy. A dramatic and rapid increase in passenger numbers was needed, particularly on underused off-peak services. Posters provided the most direct means of reaching a wide public at this time. The medium was very much in its infancy, still finding its feet in terms of stylistic quality and influence. Frank Pick, who was made responsible for the Underground’s publicity in 1908, recognised the poster’s potential. He began a programme of poster commissioning that was not only to turn the company’s fortunes around, but that would also establish the Underground as a patron of the arts and a leader in the field of company advertising.
Pick knew that pretty much any destination in or around London was reachable by Underground, or at least could be marketed as such. By promoting destinations categorically associated with leisure, the Underground could encourage Londoners to travel at the weekends and in the evenings, without any need for the hard sell. Posters presented polite but powerful invitations to travel; a very sophisticated approach to advertising for its day.
Pick was passionate about good design and its vital importance to a well run business. Posters were just part of a wider objective to establish a graphic identity for the Underground that was both powerful and coherent. Another conscious step in that direction was the highly distinctive ‘UndergrounD’ lettering, introduced in 1908. It appeared first on posters, leaflets and signage before finding a logical home across the roundel logo, the jewel in the Underground’s corporate branding crown.
Offering poster artists and Londoners infinite day trip opportunities, the river became a popular poster theme. Events such as the annual boat race and Molesey Regatta became standard subjects for posters, as did the river’s more tranquil reaches and historic sites.
Posters were commissioned from a range of artists, designers and illustrators. The annual programme was plentiful and varied, catering for the broad range of tastes within London’s travelling public. Pick believed there to be “room in posters for all styles … moving from the most literal representation to the wildest impressionism as long as the subject remains understandable to the man in the street”.
The Tube was transformed into “London’s longest art gallery”, presenting the works of established commercial designers, prestigious fine artists and emerging new talent. The display was ordered and planned to maximise the power of the poster.
Entertainment and sporting occasions were usually promoted on small panel posters. These were displayed on the glass screens inside Under-ground cars and experienced a quick turnaround. Posted in the thousands, they were often only up for a matter of weeks, prior to the event.
Another popular theme associated with the river was relaxation and rural retreat. Some of the Underground’s most grand and idealised posters promote places away from the city, like Richmond, Kew and Hampton Court. Saturated with Royal and aristocratic influences, the rural Westerly Thames meanders through the parkland, villages and democratised leisure space of the 20th century. In what would now be described as the Art Deco style, poster artists like Andre Marty and Jean Dupas were masters at capturing this Arcadian vision. Their imagery is that of a modern idyll, a concept reinforced by the use of poetry in place of a title or descriptive copy.
Although these posters were popular, a cartoon published in 1927 suggests that the public was not wholly convinced by such idealised imagery. Entitled ‘The Truth in Advertising’, the cartoon pokes fun at the Underground’s rosy depictions of leisure travel, particularly its dependency on the notoriously undependable British weather. The left column shows two potential passengers contemplating a day trip of the kind depicted in a poster issued that year. The right hand column suggests a more downbeat reality. The words ‘cool and breezy’ have been underlined in the poster, and indeed the image.
In the first half of the century posters also presented London as a bustling port, celebrating its historic importance as a hive of industry. Like sporting events and day trips, this provided another subject to lure Londoners to the river. Even the docks could be packaged up as a leisure destination. Esme Roberts depicts a vast liner looming over London’s streets, a modern spectacle literally overshadowing Tower Bridge. This powerful image is no less idealised than that of Dupas or Marty.
For The Pool of London Fred Taylor employs his trademark aerial view, previously reserved for empirical depictions of Royal London. Significantly freed up by 30 years of dock building, the vivid green of the water perhaps symbolises the river’s return to nature. In 1949 Betty Swanwich divided public opinion with her typically quirky representation of North Greenwich, a place called into existence purely by riverside industry. Twenty years before the dock’s sudden and catastrophic decline, when the character and livelihood of this whole community was made obsolete by technological and social change, Swanwich’s image is that of the everyday. Although contrived and slightly surreal in its candour, it is not idealised in the sense of earlier examples.
Poster design responded to stylistic and cultural change during the second half of the 20th century. With the rise of new advertising media and an increasing amount of work being conducted through agencies, poster commissions made directly with artists became less common. They did, however, continue to carry a certain gravitas for artists at all stages in their career, particularly those just starting out. John Burningham, one of the nation’s most celebrated children’s book illustrators, cut his teeth on LT posters in the mid 1960s.
The printmaker and illustrator Paul Catherall, whose linocuts of London are now as celebrated as they are ubiquitous, similarly acknowledges the significance of his first TfL commission in 2003. Tate Modern, aptly combining traditional media with cutting edge imagery, marked a new stylistic phase for TfL and British poster design.
In a medium of striking contrast to Catherall, Trickett & Webb’s poster of the same year depicts Canary Wharf, the centre piece of the regenerated Docklands. Here digital design has been embraced and mastered. When informed by the critical judgement and aesthetic awareness of an experienced eye, the digital image can clearly hold its own amongst the more traditional media that helped establish the Underground’s reputation for artistic excellence.
Like Anne Wilson, Catherall and Trickett & Webb present a new, revised and updated London. Despite very different approaches to design, their images brilliantly capture the modern Thames. Vibrant, bold and exciting, the river remains a subject worth promoting and worthy of commissions from the very best artists of the day. Its modernised and regenerated banks are both united, and dramatically reflected, by the river itself – a powerful visual reminder of the liquid history ‘winding through the city’.
Claire Dobbin is senior curator at the London Transport Museum. ltmuseum.co.uk
The London Transport Museum’s collection of graphic art includes over 5,000 posters and artworks which can be viewed at ltmuseum.co.uk and ordered as prints (a framing service is also available online). A display of 20 transport posters by the children’s book illustrator, John Burningham, will go on display at LTM from September to December 2011 and calls for entries to the Serco Prize for Illustration 2012 competition will be announced in the autumn. London Transport Posters: A Century of Art and Design, published by Lund Humphries in association with LTM, celebrates a century of graphic design commissioned by the Underground, London Transport, and its present-day successor, Transport for London. The book is currently available from the museum shop and from ltmuseum.co.uk