It was not long after the modern graphic poster was invented before the turn of the twentieth century that it was taken up and championed by the London Underground. Now, as part of its 150th anniversary this year, London Underground have teamed up with the London Transport Museum to showcase their pick of the 150 best posters commissioned for the world’s oldest subterranean railway.
The posters were selected from the London Transport Museum’s archive of over 5,000 commissioned posters, of which at least 3,000 have been judged to have valuable artistic merit says Michael Walton, the Museum’s head of trading.
London Underground’s tradition of mixing commerce and art began through the work of Frank Pick, who was put in charge of publicity for the underground in 1908. Despite only having a background in law and not art, Pick nevertheless understood the power of the medium. He began commissioning emerging artists and illustrators to create images that would draw in Londoners to use the tube not just for commuting to work, but also for leisure. In a 1923 TIME article, Pick was hailed as an “enlightened business manager” responsible for effectively bringing art to the masses.
Pick’s influence is pervasive even today, says Walton, who, like Pick, is now also responsible for commissioning new posters. “Pick was a visionary, much of what we do today has been gained through his tutelage. He had this incredible personal interest in courting brand new artistic styles and new designers,” says Walton. Pick also left his indelible mark on the tube’s famous roundel logo as well as the design of the stations and the iconic tube map.
Gifted artists that were commissioned include many who became famous as a result of their work for the underground. Edward McKnight Kauffer, the American-born artist who went on to become one of Britain’s most famous graphic designers, is one such example. Kauffer’s most memorable posters were part of the ‘Winter Sales’ set between 1921-24, his designs influenced by both the Vorticists and Japanese woodcuts.
Other famous names have also been commissioned throughout the tube’s history, including surrealist photographer Man Ray, whose poster ‘Keep London Going’ poster is on display as part of this new exhibition.
While poster art now forms part of the London Underground’s many platforms for advertising to its customers, the medium still remains an important part of its brand. As testament to this, its bestselling poster is still one its most relatively recent: The Tate Gallery by Tube by David Booth and Fine White Line from 1987. The originals for this design, which uses the tube map’s circuit-like form, were created using toothpaste before being moulded in plastic for the final artwork.
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A panel of experts, including Walton, chose the final set of 150 posters to be displayed in the exhibition. Deciding which would make the cut was fiercely debated according to Walton. “The heated debate showed that a good poster will always trigger an emotive response,” says Walton, “you might love it, you might hate it, but it will always trigger a strong emotion”. He refused to reveal his own favorites, but did admit there were two in the collection he “personally fought for”.
The exhibition, Poster Art 150 – London Underground’s Greatest Designs, is divided into six areas: Finding your way, Brightest London, Capital Culture, Away From It All, Keeps London Going and Love Your City. It will run from February 15 until October 27 at the London Transport Museum and will invite the public to pick their favorite from the selection of 150 vintage posters on display.