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124. The lure of the Underground, by Alfred Leete, 1927bThis is the name of a 1927 Underground poster by David Leete, to the right. Its humour, warmth, colour and indeed lure is representative of the inter-war golden age of the Tube’s commercial posters. It is one of 150  which have been selected from over 3,300 to make up this celebratory new exhibition at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.

You might argue that with so many to choose from, easy-peasy, they could hardly go wrong, and you’d be right. All are wonderful. But they haven’t been chosen simply as lovely art, but also what those who ran the network were trying to say about the Tube. Furthermore, they didn’t so much advertise the Tube itself (though many did that too), but rather what the Tube gives us, or more accurately where it takes us. So we have the theatre, all the major sports, museums, galleries, cinema, shows, exhibitions and the zoo. Despite not being especially close to a particular station, London Zoo has been the most frequently represented attraction.

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For the Zoo, Book to Regent’s Park. by Charles Paine, 1921.

Undoubtedly, the richest poster era, as we have said, was the inter-war period. This was entirely due to the influence of one man: Frank Pick. Pick joined the Underground in in the early-1900s and almost immediately set to work in standardising how the organisation represented itself. The logo and the Johnston typeface (1913) was the basis of the branding. The job of posters was to be more than just informative. They had to be bright, clever, optimistic. Alluring. He began having them posted outside stations where they could be seen in good light and seen by all, not just paying passengers. He commissioned local talent, foreign talent, artists fresh out of art college and international stars such as Man Ray and Rex Whistler. And women! All Pick cared about was that the ideas were fresh and innovative and that the art was great.

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For Property Lost, by Tom Eckersley, 1945. Eckersley got the nod from Pick fresh out of art college in the 1930s and was still producing great Tube posters in the 1970s.

Many of the problems of the Tube then are with us today. The system was often overcrowded, a situation exacerbated by peoples’ habits. Led by Pick, these were opposed with humour rather than bossiness. There is a wonderful series of  cartoon posters by the great Fougasse (Cyril Bird), exhorting people to stand on the right on the escalators; have your ticket ready at the barrier; spread out along the carriage; don’t crowd the platform entrances. There are others which try to persuade people and businesses to stagger their start and finish times for a less crowded commute; for non employed people please only to use the Tube between 9 and 4. Presumably people putting grubby feet on the seats, eating stinky food and having to be reminded to give up seats for the old and infirm still lay sometime in the yobbish future. For this period of the posters, the Tube is telling an unapologetically positive and optimistic story: London is a glamorous, sophisticated and modern metropolis: get the most out of it on the Tube. It can be argued that there is a certain innocence, naivety about all of this. But this is commercial art after all, and we must be conscious of our cynical 21st Century mind-set. This is made clear, I feel, with the later 20th Century stuff. The work is “good”, but one feels that its too clever for its own good, even classics such as Fly the Tube and the one we all know and love, The Tate by Tube. Maybe it’s the photography, barely used before the 1960s.

Congratulations to LTM for this wonderful show. Poster Art 150 continues until 27 October*. Entry is included in museum ticket, standard price £15. LTM run the enlightened policy which we applaud and endorse of year-long validity (other London institutions please take note).

*UPDATE, 6 Sept: Poster 150 has been extended to 5 January.

Here are just a few more examples to whet your appetite.

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It is Warmer Below by Frederick Charles Herrick, 1927. An oft-used theme was to use the Tube to escape the elements. The previous summer, Herrick did a poster called It is Cooler Below.

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Away from it all by Underground at Whitsuntide, by MEM Law, 1932. Simple, beautiful, clever. Tube branding superfluous.

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Power. The Nerve Centre of London’s Underground. by Edward McKnight Kauffer, 1931. Most artists were expert calligraphers. Understated Tube branding on this one.

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