This is a fabulous exhibition for anyone who is interested in the history of the Underground or who loves maps. And if, like me, that ticks both boxes, well, you’re in for a real treat.
Let’s first address the Harry Beck thing. Worthy of an exhibition in his own right. Harry Beck (1902 – 74)was the design draughtsman who devised the original diagrammatic London Underground map as we know it today. There is more than enough here for Beck fans, from one of his earliest hand-drawn sketches (1931), through his early versions where intersection station were represented as diamonds, through quite recent post-Beck representations which excluded the Thames entirely (hugely unpopular) and through to today. A special treat was Beck’s spoof tube map of 1933 literally done as a wiring diagram. Beck playing it for laughs, I always had him down as quite the serious cove.
There is so much to relish. I’ll mention two personal highlights. One: discovering MacDonald Gill. He was the brother of the more celebrated Eric Gill, sculptor and typographer. Like his sibling MacDonald was a talented type designer but also a wonderful illustrator. He was active from just before WWI and through the interwar period. Although in many of his works he played is straight, so to speak, many of his creations were large, colourful, incredibly detailed and festooned with tiny cartoons, jokes, puns and quotes. It is said that punters frequently missed their trains while reading them. Two: The tube system of 1928 superimposed on Roque’s famous London map of 1746, a simple idea, probably easily done, but inspired nonetheless. The creator remains unknown.
The Gill item is framed by a ribbon of text, thus:
BY PAYING US YOUR PENNIES, YOU GO ABOUT YOUR BUSINESSES. IN TRAMS, ELECTRIC TRAINS AND MOTOR DRIVEN BUSES. IN THIS LARGEST OF ALL CITIES. GREAT LONDON BY THE THAMES.
In the corner is a panel containing this verse:
The Westminster Press they printed me
In all my artful devilry
And painted me o’er in colours galore
In AD One thousand nine one & a four
For the Underground Railway Company
The laughter of GODS is yours if you will
As the wish of the artist is. MacDonald Gill.
And here is the 1928 Underground superimposed on Roque’s map.
I’ve mentioned but a tiny few of the many dozens of examples on display from the early 20C, the Frank Pick years, Pick being the man who imposed unifying design principles on the Tube network, both architecturally and graphically. Fast forward to living memory and enjoy again the 1980s punny advert for The Tate represented by the map made from tubes of oil paint. Simon Patterson’s celebrated Great Bear from 1992 (all the stations renamed as movie stars, scientists, philosophers etc.) is updated with an equally amusing version, named Saptarishi. Simon Wood recorded all his Underground journeys on GPS for 10 years and turned it into a map.
This is all the big stuff. We mustn’t forget the most common format of all and friend to millions of visitors to our city: the pocket map. There is a handsome selection on display.
What I have briefly described here is barely scratching the surface of this wonderful exhibition. Public transport, cartography, art, functionality and fun. It’s all here in one show. Don’t miss it.