Poster Art 150: the tube says it with a poster

To mark the Underground’s 150th birthday, an exhibition at the London Transport Museum presents150 of the most significant posters created for the tube. Within this history of London Underground posters lies the history of the poster itself.

Say it Underground with a poster, Christopher Greaves, 1933

To mark the Underground’s 150th birthday, an exhibition at the London Transport Museum presents150 of the most significant posters created for the tube. Within this history of London Underground posters lies the history of the poster itself.

From the purely typographic examples of the late 19th century, through the first illustrated tube poster in 1908, through the golden age of the 20s and 30s to the modern techniques of advertising, London Underground’s output traces the development of visual communications in the modern world. The task of selecting 150 key examples of that output, out of some 3,000 illustrated posters in the archives, was given to a panel of eight experts including representatives of TFL, the Victoria & Albert Museum, artist Simon Patterson, whose Great Bear piece so cleverly reworked the iconic tube map, Paul Rennie of Central St Martins and designer Brian Webb.

The Museum created a longlist, printed out at A4 size in a ringbinder given to each panellist. It was agreed that the final 150 should attempt to represent the history of LU in its entirety and resist the temptation to let the 20s and 30s dominate. Many old favourites are there, but there are some surprises too.



Curator Anna Renton has organised the chosen works into six sections, themed around different aspects of LU and its operations. The first section in the show (Finding Your Way) is all about posters aimed at reassuring the travelling public that the tube is a safe, pleasant place. Here we find classics such as Alfred France’s The Way For All (above) in which a smiling, behatted young lady assures us that the tube is a respectable choice for the women of 1911, while in Horace Taylor’s Brightest London (below) a glamorous crowd (including the artist himself, on the middle escalator, in beard and top hat) happily uses the then-modern innovation of escalators.



And we see the first poster to be commissioned by the great Frank Pick, whose management did so much to establish London Transport at the forefront of great design. In it, a kindly policeman refers a nervous country couple to the tube map as the only guide they will need to the system.


No Need To Ask A P’liceman, the first illustrated poster commissioned by the Underground Group, John Hassall, 1908

Smoking cars were available on the tube until 1984, although not as sumptuous as in Frederick Charles Herrick’s The Lap Of Luxury from 1925

Early tube posters often cast the system in favourable comparison to alternative methods of transportation on the surface: It is warmer below and It is cooler below, Frederick Charles Herrick, 1926


Passengers are unable to resist the Lure Of The Underground, Alfred Leete,1927

Later sections deal with behaviour, such as standing on the right on escalators and not crowding entrances to platforms, the cultural delights that the tube allows access to, with the attractions of outlying suburbs which extensions to the network brought within easy reach of all Londoners, the tube’s role in keeping London moving and, finally, the pride in the city it helps engender. What comes through in the show is that, although the posters themselves were often truly beautiful, and many of them very abstract, they all had a specific communications task to perform: they were not just art for art’s sake.


So-called panel posters were cheaply-produced mini-posters which were pasted directly onto the windows of trains. Many were used to advertise sporting events, such as The Quickest Way To The Dogs by Alfred Leete, 1927


More posters were commissioned promoting the zoo than anyother subject, including this surreal effort Zoo Choice, by Michael Read, 1970

Man Ray’s twin posters from 1938, shown for the first time as a pair in the exhibition

The pair poster became more popular after world war two when Harold F Hutchison became publicity officer for London Transport. A copywriter by trade, Hutchison introduced pairs whereby one side would be predominantly image-based and the other used for long copy. These posters were particularly useful in outlying stations where passengers may have to wait longer for a train and so have more time to read. The poster pair shown is by James Fitton, 1948

The tube poster as propaganda: During the first world war, the Underground commissioned a series of propaganda posters which were displayed in army billets on the Western Front to remind soldiers of what they were fighting for. Fred Taylor, 1918. Note the sheep grazing on Hampstead Heath, something which only happened during wartime


Dora M Batty was one of the most prolific tube poster designers. Primarily a fashion illustrator, many of her posters are distinguished by the rendering of her subjects’ clothing as in There Is Still The Country from 1926

Each of the members of the selection panel for the exhibition were asked to pick a personal favourite. Brian Webb chose Edward McKnight Kauffer’s Winter Sales from 1921. Webb says that he would cheerfully have chosen nothing but Kauffer posters for the show, so much does he admire him, but that this particular work stood out for its abstract nature. Kauffer created more posters for London Transport (127) than any other designer


Waterside London, designed by Hans Unger in 1972, was the choice of Michael Walton, who is head of trading at the London Transport Museum

Oliver Green, research fellow at the London Transport Museum, chose Thanks To The Underground by Zero (Hans Schleger), from 1935

The show, though packed into quite a cramped space, really is spectacular. It’s only by seeing these original posters ‘in the flesh’ that you can fully appreciate what extraordinary pieces of design many of them are. And what fabulous tributes to the printer’s art – the likes of Curwen Press used these posters as a showcase for their own skills. The colours, even today, are extraordinarily rich – in a less image-saturated age, their impact when placed in dim tunnels and on smoky platforms must have been extraordinary.


Poster Art 150 – London Underground’s Greatest Designs is at the London Transport Museum until October 27, Visitors will be able to vote for their favourite poster in the Siemens Poster Vote

Al images courtesy London Transport Museum Collection.

The March print issue of Creative Review is dedicated to the visual communications of the London Underground, with features on the roundel, posters, the Johnston typeface, station graphics and much much more. Out February 20, available here

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