Tuesday 13 August 2013

150 years of poster art on the Underground

1933, Christopher Greaves
2013 is the 150th anniversary of London's Underground transport system - the tube. The Transport Museum in Covent Garden is staging an excellent exhibition of 150 of the posters that have been used to promote the Tube, to advise passengers of rules and regulations and to promote a whole range of activities to Londoners over a century and a half. I finally managed to see this exhibition last week on my third attempt. On my two previous visits the queue for the exhibition snaked out of the museum door and into the piazza. This time not only did I not have to queue, I had the exhibition almost to myself. Great.

The poster is a very simple, an amazingly effective and relatively cheaply produced marketing tool. A striking image with just a few key words to convey an idea can capture the attention and guide the behaviour of millions of people if it is designed well. Just think of the impact of Alfred Leete's image of Lord Kitchener on the World War One recruitment poster - Your country needs you, known and remembered by millions of people born long after the conclusion of that war. As well as serving the practical use of message, the best posters are also works of art. It was this dual purpose that Frank Pick, London Transport's Chief Executive may have had in mind when addressing the Royal Society of Arts in 1935 when he said

"...underneath all the commercial activities of the Board, underneath all its engineering and operation, there is the revelation and realisation of something which is in the nature of a work of art...it is, in fact, a conception of a metropolis as a centre of life, of civilisation, more intense, more eager, more vitalising than has ever so far obtained".

This was a philosophy Pick implemented both in the design of new stations and through commissioning artists to produce posters with the dual purpose of communicating information and acting as works of art. You can read more about Pick and his work here.

The exhibition covers different decades and also different themes. Some of those themes seem to be for all time.  I was especially taken with a series of posters from 1944, demonstrating the etiquette expected on the Tube, encouraging passengers to have their ticket ready at the gate, to let passengers off before trying to get on and to move down once you are in the carriage so that others can board.  Things don't change much. These were the work of cartoonist Cyril Kenneth Bird who was a regular contributor to Punch the humorous magazine and who signed his work as Fougasse. Fougasse used minimalist designs to convey a simple, effective message without talking down to those it was aimed at. His skills were used extensively during the Second World War including by Government agencies who produced a plethora of public do and don't notices that ran the risk of being ignored if produced in the (then) normal dull and wordy municipal style.

1944, Fougasse

The theme of passenger etiquette on the Tube is something that has continued to feature - remember the posters that asked us to keep our "personal stereo personal" - that is, not to blast other passengers with our choice of music? And then there were the posters asking us not to eat "smelly" food on the trains.

The 1930's saw the world wide popularity of the "modern" style in the arts and whilst Pick embraced this style whole heartedly in the design of new stations, he took more convincing about the posters produced during that period. Some of the century's greatest artists were commissioned to produce posters, including Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Ray's 1938 poster Keeps London going makes clever use of the distinctive London Transport logo, transforming it into the planet Saturn on a black background. The epitome of modernism, the poster was designed in 1936 but didn't hit the streets until 1938. Pick was not keen on Moholy-Nagy describing him as a surrealistic pasticheur but allowed himself to be persuaded resulting in a series of posters with highly stylised technical imagery and dense text showing the inner working of stations. A couple of these, and Ray's Saturn are on display as part of the exhibition.

1938, Man Ray.

The Tube is at the centre of London life, getting us across the city quickly and efficiently (for the most part) to work, to sporting events and to other important activities that make life in London so special. This is also reflected in the Transport Museum's exhibition. In the 1930's as the then outskirts of the city were developed as sleeper suburbs, poster art was used to encourage this exodus to what became known as Metroland. The name came from the fact that the Metropolitan Line served places in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Middlesex where Londoners were told they could enjoy the pleasures of country life, just a short and cheap ride away from the city and their work. I really liked the  Gardening by Underground poster from 1933, designed by Stanislaus S. Longley. It shows a Metroland dweller with one foot in his garden, mowing the lawn and wearing casual clothes on the right hand side, with the other foot in the busy Metropolis influenced city and wearing much more formal clothes on the left hand side, emphasising the easy journey between the two made possible by the Tube.

1933, Stanislaus S. Longley

My other favourite is a poster designed by female artist Herry Perry for the 1935 FA Cup Final which lists trams and buses as well as the nearest underground stations for the fans making their way to Wembley Stadium. The poster is a collage with three figures in different footballing actions using bus tickets to construct the figures. She also designed posters to direct sports fans to other major events including Wimbledon. Perry was one of a number of women working in the advertising industry in the 1920's and 1930's. She also designed posters for the Great Western Railway and London Midland and Scottish Railway as well as being a book illustrator, designer of playing cards and pub signs! 

1935, Herry Perry.

I may have had a long wait to see this exhibition but I am very glad I kept trying. A poster shop at the 55 Broadway headquarters of the Underground opened in 1933 selling copies of the posters to the traveling public. The shop closed during the Second World War due to the impact of purchase tax and paper shortages. The exhibition offers a similar facility with reproductions of many of the posters available for purchase from the museum shop. I have many posters at home that I do not have space to exhibit. That said, I couldn't resist a copy of the Man Ray...

The exhibition continues until 27th October.

You might also like London art deco part one

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