Mosaics, motifs and enamelled steel

The Underground lends itself to large-scale public art and design projects – a commitment it maintains to this day. Mark Sinclair looks at the history of platform art

As is so often the case with the story of art and design on the Underground, Frank Pick, the publicity officer who went on to become London Transport’s chief executive, played a key role in bringing public art projects to the tube network. In addition to his work establishing the Underground’s visual identity and his commissioning of many of its architectural highlights, Pick also introduced other permanent design features to various stations, such as stained glass windows and patterned tiling. In the years following his death in 1941, intricate platform mosaics and large wall graphics continued to be made in the model of his station-specific public art. It’s a tradition, albeit one updated for contemporary tastes, that the Art on the Underground programme continues to develop today.

In the late 1920s a legion of sculptors including Eric Gill, Jacob Epstein, Allan Wyon and Henry Moore contributed works to the facade of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London’s new headquarters at 55 Broadway. But as the network grew in size and reach, many other notable artistic works appeared across the length of the tube system itself, inside and out. Uxbridge station, for example, at the western end of the Piccadilly Line, opened in 1938 with two notable pieces. High above the station exit sits a wide ‘clerestory’ window designed by stained glass artist Ervin Bossanyi, while outside there are two large rolling stock wheels carved in stone by Joseph Armitage. At East Finchley, Eric Aumonier’s kneeling Archer still suggests a sense of momentum with his drawn bow; while outside Blackhorse Road station, David McFall’s fibreglass horse relief canters away from the entrance.

Down below in the station itself passengers can locate another black horse, a platform ‘motif’ by the German designer Hans Unger. It’s one of a series of artworks which were unveiled at each of the 16 stations on the Victoria Line when it opened, in three stages, between 1968 and 1971. Behind the seat recesses at each of the stations tiled murals were installed by a range of designers, each one referencing the local area in some way. At Walthamstow Central, Julia Black used a pattern by William Morris, who had lived and worked locally; while at Tottenham Hale the printmaker Edward Bawden designed an image of a ‘foot ferry’ that would once have been in service on the nearby River Lea.

Unger contributed four designs to the Victoria line series, British designer Tom Eckersley made three, but two of the most interesting are the single pieces by Abram Games – an abstract swan at Stockwell station, referencing a local pub – and Alan Fletcher’s maze design for Warren Street. The latter – a pun on the station’s name – was apparently designed for commuters who had three minutes to spare as they waited for the next train. All the tile designs remain (with some updating) – the newest of them, an abstract piece in reference to the Tate Gallery at Pimlico, was completed 41 years ago.

The late 1970s and 1980s saw several station commissions. To celebrate the reopening of Charing Cross in 1979, platform-length murals were designed by David Gentleman for the Northern Line. Known for his woodcut work for Penguin book covers and tube posters, Gentleman used boxwood on which to carve images of the craftsmen who in 1291 had begun building a stone memorial (a ‘cross’ near the hamlet of Charing) to Eleanor of Castile, the wife of King Edward I. The blocks Gentleman created, which featured stonemasons, carpenters, horsemen and boatmen, were printed, enlarged and screenprinted up on the platform walls.

In 1983, Annabel Grey started work on a series of six giant mosaics of hot air balloons for Finsbury Park station. “I came up with various designs based on the park and ponds, ducks and trees,” says the designer, “and I’d put a small balloon in the sky. Then I came up with just the hot air balloons – I thought it was elevating, as Finsbury Park is a very deep tunnel and the balloons are a simple shape. They started off low, they rise up and then come down over the six panels.” After Grey’s drawings were presented to several committees, the project was commissioned and the designs worked up. In addition to the six balloons, Grey was asked to design two sets of pillars and two ‘headwalls’ for each platform.

“Then it got very complicated and mathematical as there’s an ellipse of landscape running behind the balloons, and I realised that when you added the spaces between the trackside panels, the landscape would have been 360 feet high,” says Grey. “So I had to work out the ellipse on the tunnel, which is very long and has a very slight curve. There were a few nights with the foreman of the contractors standing on the switched off live rail with giant tailors’ chalk to check the measurements of the ellipse on the rendered panels.” These chalked lines were painted red to see if the design worked before a final set of scale paintings were made.

Grey and her team then went in search of suitable material to create the mosaics. “The tiling contractor, one of the mosaicists and I went to Vicenza to source all the colours which were then shipped over,” she says. “The balloons were very pretty and classical – there were 52 colours including gold mosaic. I had a limit of £15,000 worth of gold mosaic.”

A year later, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi was also treated generously by London Transport when 1,000 square metres of wall space was given over to him at Tottenham Court Road. The artist created a series of detailed mosaics made from vitreous glass tiles and stained glass tesserae. His designs, which ranged from animals and people to satellites and even a saxophone, run across the ticket hall, escalator wells, passageways and plaforms, while the date of the piece was recorded alongside his signature in the ‘rotunda’ interconnecting area. It is unclear as to whether elements of his project will be lost in the Crossrail redevelopment work at the station.

Grey also created work for the Central Line, producing a series of 16 colourful arches at Marble Arch in 1985. “Because I’d had an enameller at aged nine, I came up with the suggestion of doing the enamelling myself,” says Grey, “as I thought that printing [the work] would look too dull and flat; it would look more painterly if I did it. I then had months of absolute panic and sleepless nights trying to work out how to do it.” At an enamel sign factory in Sydenham, where some of the Underground’s signage was printed, Grey was given a spray booth and worked with two assistants on the lengthy project. Each of the 16 designs is made up of nine separate steel sheets, and each sheet had to be fired around ten times.

Mosaics were still being used on large scale projects in 2001, when the last section of the Alfred Hitchcock installation at Leytonstone station was installed. The work, which began in 1999 and was commissioned for the centenary of the director’s birth (he was born locally) features a selection of famous scenes from his films.

In recent years, the contemporary public art projects on the tube system have been the domain of Art on the Underground, the body that emerged from the Platform for Art programme in 2007. Since then it has aimed to “contribute to [the] Underground’s artistic and design legacy and the cultural landscape of London through a diverse programme of temporary and permanent art projects”. New sculptural work has included Full Circle, the large but blink-and-you’ll-miss-it folded semi-circle of metal installed by artist Knut Henrik Henriksen at King’s Cross St Pancras, and John Maine’s Sea Strata that saw the buildings of Green Park station clad in stone and the installation of a granite pavement. While artist(s) Bob and Roberta Smith have created work for Stratford station; Sarah Morris showed a series of her Big Ben Olympic posters at the Gloucester Road space; more recently, Jacqueline Poncelet’s heavily patterned Wrapper and Rewrap series have graced the outside of Edgware Road and the ticket hall at Piccadilly Circus.

This month British artist Mark Wallinger’s Labyrinth project was unveiled as part of the Underground’s 150th anniversary celebrations. Unlike the site-specific artworks of the past, Wallinger has created a series of black and white maze-like graphics which have been placed somewhere within each and every stop on the network. It’s a contemporary take on a long-established tradition of art and design on the Underground and, appropriately, celebrates difference while bringing all 270 tube stations together.

More images are available at the London Transport Museum’s archive, Thanks to Sam Hart and Steve Collins for additional photography

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