Underground art is still fresh after 150 years
We British aren’t usually good at avant-garde, but the Tube’s designs were utterly modern, says Harry Mount, 20th Oct, 2012
It’s a bit odd that the greatest British invention of the 19th century – the railway – was largely housed in mock-medieval stations. St Pancras and the neighbouring Midland Grand Hotel are marvellous buildings, but how strange that they’re designed like a 13th-century cloth hall in Ypres. John Betjeman pointed out that Liverpool Street Station was even built on the plan of a Gothic cathedral – with the canteen where the altar should be.
Something different happened with the London Underground, which celebrates its 150th birthday next year, commemorated in a new book, Underground: How the Tube Shaped London by David Bownes, Oliver Green and Sam Mullins. We British aren’t usually much good at anything avant-garde, but the Tube’s designs were utterly modern. Even though the old infrastructure is creaking, the union demands outdated and the carriages packed, Tube style remains astonishingly fresh.
Because the designs were original, and not imitating a previous age, they don’t date. They are so idiosyncratic that they are reminders only of themselves. When you see the Tube map, the bullseye sign, the Metroland posters or the coloured tiles, you don’t think early 20th century; you just think “Tube” – a sign of excellent design.
White glazed tiles were initially used, to increase illumination on the earliest Tube stations of the Metropolitan Line – the first line to open, in 1863, between Paddington and Farringdon. Like the tiles on the 19th-century back entrance of the Savoy Hotel, they were easy to clean – useful in the soot-flecked smog of Victorian London.
The Tube’s later adoption of coloured tiles wasn’t entirely original; it was borrowed from the New York subway. The man who built, electrified and beautified London’s Edwardian Tube lines was American, too – a crook called Charles Yerkes. He had been driven out of Chicago for corruption. Still, it was Yerkes who raised money through American syndicates to finance the expansion of the Tube. He also introduced sliding doors and strap-hanging.
It was during the Edwardian expansion that the exterior look of the London Tube station emerged. Forty stations were built in 1906-07 to a standard design, with ox-blood, glazed-brick exteriors on steel skeletons. Yerkes commissioned London and Shropshire companies to manufacture the famed, nine-inches-by-three, coloured tiles. He had a feel for colour, on a general, but not a rigid, scheme: usually with green tiles in the booking hall, up to shoulder height, and cream tiles above.
There was great variety across the network: Caledonian Road station had tiles in three shades of plum; Hyde Park Corner was brown with pale yellow details; Kennington Road gold and dark blue. There were also elements of the Art Nouveau, twirly-whirly lines of the Paris Métro – particularly in wrought-iron entrance gates to stations such as Regent’s Park. Even the lift shaft ventilation grilles were decorated with playful Art Nouveau detail – sinuous iron leaves and twisting railings – worthy of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Architectural innovation continued into the 1920s and 1930s. Charles Holden’s 1926 design for Underground headquarters – over St James’s Park station – produced Britain’s first great Manhattanesque skyscraper. Jacob Epstein’s sculptures of Night and Day for the building were considered so outrageous that, in an intentionally absurd compromise, Epstein cut an inch off the penis of the naked boy in Day. Holden’s 1930s modernist stations on the Piccadilly Line were equally revolutionary.
Elsewhere in Britain, we never really got into Art Nouveau and Art Deco the way they did on the Continent – our Art Deco flat roofs leaked in the rain, which stained the white concrete walls and leaked through the curving windows. The same went for baroque 200 years earlier – in our cool, northern way, we’ve always recoiled from anything that smacks too much of pretension or southern, hot-blooded Catholicism.
But the Tube was given free rein by a series of broad-minded designers and administrators. The best known is Frank Pick, commercial manager in 1912, and the first chief executive of London Transport by 1933. Pick established the distinctive Tube poster, encouraging artists and printers to apply an Arts and Crafts look to modern technology – a combination dubbed medieval modernism.
Pick commissioned Edward Johnston, an expert calligrapher, to design the Tube font, now known as Underground Sans, in 1913. Johnston also designed the Underground bullseye, or roundel, sign in 1925. Underground Sans looks simple, but Johnston’s demands were exacting: his O is a perfect circle, his capital M a square with the diagonal strokes meeting exactly in the middle of the letter. Pick was also a ruthless commercial operator. He ensured the Johnston letterface was copyrighted to the Underground Group; another reason why the font signals “Tube” loudly.
The same combination of original design and commercial protection applied to Harry Beck’s 1931 Tube map – dreamt up in his spare time and offered to the Underground’s publicity department. His innovation, like all great ideas, seems obvious: to abandon geographical accuracy for the sake of a simple diagram. Still, the Underground management didn’t think much of it: they paid him only 10 guineas, and sat on the map for two years, before finally releasing it, to popular acclaim.
The delay was a rare aesthetic lapse by the Tube authorities. They didn’t just build the first underground railway; they built the best-designed one.