The story of the London Underground poster begins with Frank Pick. As well as being responsible for commissioning the font that the London Underground still uses today, as Head of Publicity for the London Underground in 1908, Pick commissioned hundreds of posters by both popular artists and relatively unknown ones, too. Man Ray, David Hockney, Edward McKnight Kauffer and Paul Nash are among the many artists who have produced artwork for the Tube.
In 1927, after Frank Pick had been commissioning posters for 20 years, he wrote:
It may be supposed that their purpose is immediately directed to securing passengers. In some instances this has been the case, but in as many instances the purpose has been the establishment of goodwill and good understanding between the passengers and the companies. A transport service is continually open to criticism and much of the criticism arises from a lack of knowledge. Every passenger is a potential critic, many passengers are dynamic ones...
Even when the purpose has been to secure passengers it has been the practice to proceed by indirect means. To create a feeling of restlessness, a distate for the immediate surroundings, to revive that desire for change, which all inherit from their barbarian ancestors.
- From Underground Art by Oliver Green
Therefore, much of early and even current London Underground posters show how far you can travel on the Tube and show the wonderful places you can travel to, particularly when you are not doing your normal 9 to 5 daily commute.
Roger Fry, a leading art critic of the 1920s, was somewhat cynical about this method of publicity. He said that the Underground:
... built up in the public imagination an image of something almost personal - as such they begin to claim almost the loyalty and allegiance of the public they exploit. They produce in the public a non-critical state of romantic enthusiasm for the line. More and more the whole thing takes on an air of romance and unreality.
In the 1920s, the Underground was regularly producing over 40 posters a year, by the 1950s this had reduced to only seven or eight. By 1975, only four a year were being produced by artists and designers. However, by the mid-1980s 'Art on the Underground' was revived, if only as a way of filling up the blank unsold advertising space on the Tube. Each year about six posters were commissioned with print runs of 6000 each. If they were popular they were reprinted in smaller sizes and sold to the general public.
David Booth's 'The Tate Gallery by Tube' (illustrated at the bottom of The London Transport Museum's page on posters) proved to be one of the most popular posters and has been sold around the world. It was an advert for the Tate Gallery and shows a Tube map being made from lines of paint squeezed from a paint Tube with the Tube logo and the word Pimlico on it (Pimlico is the nearest Tube station to the Tate Gallery). As Elizabeth Ewell wrote in her essay on 'Post Modernism and the Sophisticated Consumer, this poster:
... epitomises Post-Modernism's ability to take a familiar image, in this case Harry Beck's world famous Underground Journey Planner Map, and twist it with wry humour to mean something entirely different. The Underground has for years been known as the Tube, and the very double-entendre of seeing the famous lines drawn out, pop-art style, with a Tube of paint is something which immediately catches the eye.
This shows us that Post-Modernist design is not merely about being representational, as many poster designs of the past were, but witty, innovative and compelling. It allows the sophisticated consumer to be drawn - and that is what we require today, to be drawn by the quirkiness of the piece, and its success as design was proven by the volume of visitors to the gallery while the poster was up.
By the 1990s, advertising was being sold more aggressively by TDI (now Viacom Outdoor), so there were fewer of these 'free' spaces. Even so, market research showed that the public liked these images which weren't hard sell and provided something everyone could enjoy. Now the London Transport museum is home to the great historic archives of the Tube poster and is also the principal retail outlet for these posters. You can see an Online viewing of posters at the LT Museum Shop.
From World War Morale Boosting to 'Love Is...'
The poster had a particular role to play in the Second World War. Eric Kennington produced the 'Seeing it Through' series. This featured paintings of real London Underground staff who had carried out everyday acts of heroism during the war. The accompanying poem by AP Herbert encapsulates the mood:
Thank you Mrs Porter,
For a good job stoutly done
Your voice is clear, and the Hun can hear
When you cry 'South Kensington'.
The world must hurry homeward,
The soldier on his way,
And the wheels whizz round on the Underground
At the voice of the girls in grey.
And though the skies are noisy
How calm the voices are
'Upminster Train! That man again! Pass further down the car!'
In The Lure of the Underground1 by Alfred Leete (also responsible for the greatest First World War recruiting poster - 'Your Country Needs You'), a whole group of bowler-hatted people are physically drawn to the Tube like magnets. In this poster from 1927 the people being 'lured' to the Tube have happy looks on their faces. It is hard to imagine the poster being commissioned today, even though crowds of people approaching a Tube station still resemble the image of metal shavings being drawn to a magnet.
At least these posters had some life of their own and were more contemporary than the current 2001 'Love Is' series of posters gracing the Tube at the moment (at time of writing). The kitsch 'Love Is' characters from the 1970s sweetly tell us to not eat smelly food, to keep our feet off the seats, to let old ladies sit down first, to move down the carriage and other pieces of Tube etiquette. However, it could be argued they lack the punch of the earlier posters and makes one wonder why contemporary cartoonists were not used.
Oliver Green from Underground Art concludes that the use of posters has come full circle and says that:
... the medium is still being put to thoughtful and creative use, brightening the daily travelling environment for millions of people in the biggest art gallery in the world.
A companion book to Underground Art, is Pleasure Trips by Underground. This book focusses on posters from the 1910s - 1930s promoting leisure travel on the Tube. The poster curator of the London Transport Museum, Jonathan Riddell, celebrates this art form of trying to encourage users onto the Underground out of commuting hours. The subjects are wide ranging from the Boat Race to the Imperial War Museum, and include examples of posters by Edward Bawden, whose work for the London Undeground probably inspired the artwork for The Titfield Thunderbolt which Bawden produced for an Ealing Comedies railway film.