The Independent Magazine – Underground art: The colourful past of the Tube

Underground art: The colourful past of the Tube

By Rob Sharp

There are two wooden oars, adorned with smiling faces and peaked, collegiate caps, shouting through angular megaphones. An advertisement for the Cambridge versus Oxford boat race on the Thames, it is a Wodehouse-esque appreciation of tradition that is inclusive and colourful.

The artwork in question is just one of thousands of posters that have decorated the Underground since it first rolled from its rickety sidings at the end of the 19th century. Produced by the legendary designer Tom Eckersley, it marks a long tradition of exemplary cutting-edge work by leading creatives that stretches back more than 100 years.

Now, the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden is marking a centenary of such graphic designs by exhibiting original artworks that have graced the capital’s tube platforms. “The key to the exhibition is accessing the hidden process behind what makes these posters so wonderful,” says the exhibition’s co-curator Claire Dobbin. “Many of them are familiar to people and no one knows why they were made. This is the perfect opportunity to find out.”

One section of the exhibition addresses the commissioning process – how the posters were selected and why – and will feature a number of artists whose careers were kick-started by designing for the Underground. The most famous of these is Tom Eckersley, who was asked to do his first poster straight out of college and continued his relationship with London Underground for the next 60 years.The show also looks at the art chronologically, pulling its contents from the schools of modernism, art deco and fine art.

Celebrated talent on display will include the artists Eric Ravilious and Paul Nash, and it is noteworthy just how prestigious the posters have remained in the eyes of those who created them. So says Paul Catherall, who designed the 2007 lino cut “Primrose Hill”, which depicted the London skyline. The purpose was to commemorate “a new view of London” – or the selection of a number of overground lines to come under the aegis of London Underground that year. “It was a very big deal for me,” he says. “I remember when I moved down to London from Leicester after finishing university in 1989 I would see those posters and figured it would be my dream job. When I eventually got the commission I was over the moon.”

No exhibition of posters in the Underground would be complete without mentioning Frank Pick. Pick was in charge of commissioning from 1908 to 1940, attracting some of the leading lights of visual art. His techniques have been spoken of in hushed tones by the design community ever since. The exhibition pays him his due respect. “His vision for art was that while he sought out the best graphic artists, he also tried to balance that with up-and-coming people,” concludes Dobbin. “And the designs he used were always informed by fitness of purpose, not simply his own tastes. The tradition has been continued until the present day. ‘The Art of the Poster’ runs from 16 October 2008 to 31 March 2009. For more information contact or 020 7 565 7298.