Underground art

The history of the tube is also the history of the poster: a new London Transport Museum exhibition selects 150 key pieces from the archives

Within the 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.

To mark the Underground’s 150th birthday, the London Transport Museum is staging an exhibition of 150 of its most significant posters. The task of making the selection, 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 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 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 a glamorous crowd (including the artist himself) 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.

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. 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 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.

Paul Rennie remembers the “combination of the terrible anxiety of going underground and the visual excitement of the stations and tunnels” when he first made a trip on the tube. The 150 posters in the show, he says, bring to the surface various important points in the development of visual communications. So we begin with fine artists making posters in the 20s and 30s, through the development of commercial art and its transformation into graphic design through to modern advertising.
The 20s and 30s, however, remain the heyday of the tube poster. “At the beginning, printers and designers are using the poster not just to advertise London Underground but also to advertise themselves, their dexterity and quality of printing,” he says. “Very quickly, in the 1920s, a kind of four-colour economy kicks in so that designers could design a poster more quickly, using large blocks of flat colour and it’s all becoming a bit more poetic and expressive at that point.” During the 30s, photography starts to become a more pronounced element in the posters as technology improves and fashions change.

Under the leadership of Pick, the likes of Edward McKnight Kauffer, Alfred Leete and Hans Schleger were producing some of the most beautiful and now valuable posters created for the tube. “Pick was unique in that he had an incredibly powerful position within the organisation: in some ways he built it,” Webb says. “When Pick first started, the tube lines and buses were all individual companies which gradually became London Transport. Pick could engineer how they came together and communicate that to the travelling public, so he was in a very powerful position to actually control what was being communicated to people.” Perhaps, Webb says, the only organisation to come close to what Pick and his successors have been able to do with London Underground is the Royal Mail whose stamps programme shares a mission to educate and entertain.

Despite the presence of some famous painters in the LU archives, Webb notes that “when Pick worked with well-known artists, the results were often not as good as when he worked with ‘real’ designers who came up with really good solutions”. There were clear objectives for the posters, whether attempting to persuade travellers to use the system at off-peak times, introduce new destinations, explain fares or remind users of the scope and quality of the system. Tube posters even played a propaganda role in both the first and second world wars, with special editions sent to troops.

What lessons could we learn from Pick? “Don’t do it by committee,” says Webb. “[As designers]tell us the problem, don’t tell us the solution. And don’t try to put it all in one poster. They realised that more than half a dozen words weren’t going to get read – have a look at posters now and they have half a textbook on them, you can’t read the words.”

Following world war two and Pick’s retirement, his successors began to make use of a younger generation of designers, many from the RCA. Through this period, David Gentleman, Abram Games and Tom Eckersley produced posters every bit as fine as those of the 20s and 30s. However, in the 70s, London Transport contracted its poster sites out to independent providers with the result that there were fewer available spaces for its own use.

Today the poster has lost its central position as a communications device but, says Rennie, its role has not changed that much. “Graphic communication is about relentless repetition. You can’t stop for a second, partly because the population of London is in constant transformation and new people are coming in, you just have to repeat all that stuff about how to behave over and over again.”

But aside from its obvious contribution, Rennie believes that the tube poster and the wider design output of LU has an even more important part to play in modern life. “The underground system and the way it has promoted itself has made a contribution not just to the practical business life of London but to the cognitive formation of Londoners,” he claims. “London is quite a complex cognitive experience for people, some people can deal with that and others can’t. London Underground was a way of easing people into a more accelerated form of modernity and I think that’s made people more intelligent. There is a concept known as the Flynn Effect which was identified by a political scientist in New Zealand who noticed that, in the course of the 20th century people’s IQs have got higher. Against all the odds, it looks like people are getting more intelligent, but they are only getting more intelligent in some ways, and one of the ways is that they get better at spatial intelligence, navigation and processing visual communication. They only improve in those areas when they are living in big cities.” Systems such as London Underground, with its map, signage and communications messages have played an active part in such development, Rennie argues. “I really believe that graphic communications have made a much more profound and significant cultural impact than is usually acknowledged,” he says. So not only have the designers, artists and art directors who have created posters for the tube over the past 150 years made our world a more beautiful place, not only have they helped us to work out how to use the system, they may also have helped make us more intelligent too.

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

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