Mind the Map: Art of the London Underground

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As the London Underground celebrates 150 years in January 2013, ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY ride the Tube to showcase the art and design behind its stations

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The London Underground carries 4 million passengers every day across its 12 odd lines. But like the Mumbai local, few have the time to pause and think about the city’s legendary carrier. Smart-dressed teens glued to their smartphones, women with bursting shopping bags from Primark, sombre office-goers in grey business suits engrossed in the Evening Standard, pickled men returning home late, nervous tourists poring over a map of the Tube or buskers in tunnels looking for a penny, the story of London’s Underground is somewhat lost in the babble of Dutch, French, German, Russian, Italian, Egyptian, Cantonese, Arabic, Irish and a myriad tongues that constitute London’s terra lingua.

It’s only when you slow down a bit, that you notice the nuances of the London Underground and just how seriously it takes itself. At Baker’s Street station, the tiles bear the familiar deerstalker cap and pipe outline of the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. Etched on the platform walls are black and white illustrations of some of his famous cases – The Lion’s Mane, The Red Headed League, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Solitary Cyclist.

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At South Kensington station on the Picadilly Line, the designs are based on the architectural detail of Natural History Museum nearby. Tottenham Court Road has funky digital mosaic tile-art by Italian artist E Paolozzi, done in 1984. Gloucester Road on the District Line has colourful graphics of the famous Big Ben dial by artist Sarah Morris.

On the Northern Line platforms of Charing Cross are evocative 350 ft long black and white murals showing medieval workers building the original Charing Cross erected by King Edward I when his wife Queen Eleanor of Castile died in 1290. Twelve Eleanor Crosses were erected at places where her body rested between Lincoln and Westminster Abbey. The name Charing is perhaps a corruption of Chere reine or ‘Dear Queen’ in French. All the 12 original crosses were demolished but just outside the station stands a replica created by Barry and Earp with 8 standing, crowned statues of Eleanor marking the slender, delicately carved monument.

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David Gentleman, famous for designing British postage stamps, carried out extensive research into 13th century engraving techniques, before designing 50 separate wooden blocks for Charing Cross station. Each block measured just 4 inches and was enlarged into 6 feet high prints impregnated on panels in such a way that the visual story was broken by the gaps for entrance and exit passageways. Such fascination with the Underground and meticulous approach is not new.   

Though the St Pancras station was designed like a 13th-century cloth hall in Ypres and the Liverpool Street station resembled the floor plan of a Gothic cathedral (in place of the altar was the canteen!), the Tube’s designs were quite modern with a timeless appeal.

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When the first Underground link, the Metropolitan Line from Paddington to Farringdon opened on 9 January 1863, nearly 40,000 people used it on the first day. The white glazed tiles used in the early Tube stations had a dual benefit – they increased illumination and were quite easy to clean in the sooty smog of Victorian London. The idea of using coloured tiles was filched from the New York subway and not surprisingly the person behind it was a Yankee crook!

After being chased out of Chicago for corruption, Charles Yerkes raised money through American syndicates to finance the expansion of the Tube. Not only did he electrify and beautify it, he introduced sliding doors and hanging straps. Yerkes also commissioned local companies to make the famous 9 by 3 inch coloured tiles in green and cream. The Underground also toyed with other hues – Caledonian Road station had tiles in three shades of plum; Hyde Park Corner was brown with pale yellow details while Kensington Road had gold and dark blue.

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In the Edwardian era, 40 new stations were built in 1906-07 as per a standard design, with ox-blood, glazed-brick exteriors on steel frames. But it was a few administrative geniuses, free-spirited architects and designers who made the Underground truly iconic. In 1912, a commercial manager named Frank Pick encouraged artists and printers to give an Art and Craft look to modern technology, termed ‘medieval modernism’, which gave birth to the distinctive Tube posters.

A year later, Pick commissioned expert calligrapher Edward Johnston to design the Tube font, now known as Underground Sans. Johnston copyrighted his font for the exclusive use of the Underground Group and also designed the now famous Underground bullseye or roundel sign in 1925. Befittingly, Britain’s first Manhattan style skyscraper was the Underground headquarters over St James’s Park station, based on designs by Charles Holden in 1926, who also conceived the modernist stations on the Piccadilly Line in the 1930s. But the best was yet to come…

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In 1931 Harry Beck in his spare time scribbled a rail grid that was geographically not to scale but really simplified and aesthetic. When he offered his version of the Tube map to the Underground’s publicity department, the management paid him just 10 guineas, sat on it for two years, and finally released it, to popular acclaim!

The Pocket Tube map is updated and reprinted twice a year so a new cover is required each time. As part of Art on the Underground, 15 contemporary artists were commissioned to present their own interpretation and perspective of the world famous map. Jeremy Deller and Paul Ryan featured a portrait of John Hough, the longest serving member of staff with 45 years of service. Dryden Goodwin did 60 portraits of the Jubilee Line staff. Liam Gillick used colorful text to mark the last day that London existed without the Tube network in 1863. Cornelia Parker, Yinka Shonibare, David Shrigley, Emma Kay and most other artists made interesting use of the main colours used to represent the different lines in the Underground.

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Even India left a mark. Gond artist Bhajju Shyam’s painting The King of the Underworld, part of his series called The London Jungle, depicts the Underground as a giant earthworm. Bhajju explains “As per Gond belief, there is another world below this one, which is ruled by the earthworm. I discovered there is such a world in London as well. Although different from the Gond one, in London’s world below the earth, the tube as the earthworm rules it!” Interviews with artists and the meaning behind their artwork are being featured in London Transport Museum’s exhibition ‘Mind the Map: Inspiring Art Design and Cartography.’

The Underground inspires not just artists, but poets too. Sample the poem Swallows by Owen Sheers, part of Poems on the Underground – The Natural World. “The swallows are italic again, cutting their sky-jive, between the telephone wires, flying in crossed lines. Their annual regeneration, so flawless to human eyes, that there is no seam, between parent and child. Just always the swallows, and their script of descenders, dipping their ink to sign their signatures, across the page of the sky.”

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Today, the Tube mania has gone overground with Mind the Gap fridge magnets, London Underground t-shirts, art prints and other souvenirs. Even the Google Doodle celebrated 150 years with the search engine’s name spelt out like different coloured lines on a map of the Tube. So the next time you pore over an Underground map or get on the Tube, remember it’s more than an art movement, it’s art in movement.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 27 Jan 2013 in the Sunday supplement of Deccan Herald newspaper. 

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