By Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Papering the subways, London Transport posters brought modernism to the masses.
During the first half of the 20th century, tens of thousands of Britons got their first glimpses of avant-garde art while riding the Tube.
To be sure, the primary purpose of the London Underground system’s poster campaign was to tout the house brand to a captive audience, informing them of the exciting places they could go via subways, buses or trams, and this it did with color, wit and verve. But in addition, due to the inspired leadership of executive Frank Pick, the Underground (renamed the London Passenger Transport Board in 1933) commissioned cutting-edge artists and gave them the freedom to incorporate elements of Futurism, Vorticism and other modernist styles into their designs.
Writing about the poster program in Architectural Review in 1942, historian Nikolaus Pevsner stated, “It can safely be said that no exhibition of modern painting, no lecturing, no school teaching can have had anything like so wide an effect on the educatable masses as the unceasing production and display of L.P.T.B. posters over the years 1930–1940.”
A wide range of artistic styles and references pervaded the poster series. In 1928, a poster promoting bus service to the annual Derby Day horse races at Epsom Downs included a leaping white steed that resembled the one in Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano. Another poster turned the 1925 Oxford-Cambridge rowing race into a masterful abstraction, with the trailing boat, pictured from above, looking like a streamlined, eight-legged insect as it cuts a white-bordered powder-blue triangle through the black water of the Thames. A 1924 poster reminding riders to take the Underground to the winter sales became a tour de force of Futurism, rendering two coat-clad, umbrella-carrying figures as a vibrant collection of angles and curves.
Admired in their time, vintage London Underground posters command strong sums at auction. Last November, the South Kensington branch of Christie’s London offered a private collection heavy with London Transport posters, several of which had never before seen at auction, and others only rarely. The group earned £234,000 ($378,000) on a collective presale estimate of £140,000 (about $226,800) with a pair of 1930 posters of outdoor idylls by Jean Dupas performing especially well. Where is This Bower Beside the Silver Thames? sold for £16,875 ($27,300) against an estimate of £7,000–11,000 ($11,000–14,000), and Thence To Hyde Park which carried the same estimate as its sibling, garnered £20,000 ($32,360)In the same month, Swann Auction Galleries in New York sold a 1933 Wimbledon poster by Sybil Andrews, who worked under the name Andrew Power, for $24,000.
Dozens upon dozens of artists participated in the London Transport poster program in its heyday, but it was not the brainchild of one. The credit belongs instead to Frank Pick, a former railroad executive who had trained for a career in law, not art. Somewhere along the way, he gained an unshakable faith in the power of graphic design to delight, soothe and generally make life more bearable for London Transport travelers, who, sooner or later, would suffer the annoyances of delays and breakdowns.
“I think his idea was really about creating good will and understanding between riders, the public and the company,” says Sarah Schleuning, a curator of Art for All: British Posters for Transport, an exhibition laden with vintage London Transport posters currently on display at the Wolfsonian Museum at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami Beach (through August 14). “That’s what makes it distinct.”
Pick’s strategic use of graphic design extended beyond the poster program. Through his efforts, the London Underground developed its iconic subway map; refined its so-called “roundel” logo into its current form, which features a blue bar over a red circle; and created its own typeface, named Johnston after the calligrapher who developed it. Pick did not design any of these personally, but he pursued their creation, commissioned them from others who had the requisite skills, and approved the final versions.
The map, logo, typeface and poster campaign transformed each London Underground station into a cohesive whole that subtly conveyed impressions of order, efficiency and competence—which is exactly what one would want to convey when asking customers to descend hundreds of feet below the surface to board a noisy metal box full of strangers that hurtles through the darkness.
In a 1939 speech, Pick outlined the four goals of a successful poster: to arrest, to explain, to inform and to suggest. If an artist’s proposal satisfied all of these, Pick would consider it, even if it didn’t reflect his personal taste. “What’s very interesting is that he became interested in more radical styles,” says freelance curator Teri Edelstein, who created Art for All. “Even when an artist became a little more radical than he was comfortable with, he still supported it.”
Pick’s openness led him to approve some remarkably sophisticated designs for a mass audience. He had a particularly fruitful relationship with the American-born artist and graphic designer E. McKnight Kauffer, whom he first commissioned in 1915, soon after Kauffer arrived in London. The details of how the two men met are fuzzy, but it is possible that they connected through John Hassall, who designed the first London Underground poster in 1908.
Pick commissioned Kauffer 126 times between 1915 and 1939, the year before the artist returned to the U.S., presenting travelers with marvels such as a winter sales poster from 1922 that places colored figures on a spiral of blue, tan, and gray paint spattered onto a white and black background. “Here you have a swirling abstract vortex,” says Edelstein. “He does not show people; he shows silhouettes of flat color. He does not show them to be in the snow, he shows the effects of snow.”
Kauffer’s bold work gained notice in smart circles. Evelyn Waugh had Charles Ryder, the narrator of Brideshead Revisited, mention that he had furnished his rooms at Oxford with a Kauffer poster (though unfortunately he neglected to have him describe it).
In 1935, art critic Anthony Blunt wrote, “Apart from producing admirable posters, McKnight Kauffer has rendered another important service to modern art. By using the methods of the more advanced schools, and by putting them before the men in the street in such a way as to catch them off their guard, so that they are lured into liking the poster before they realize that it is just the kind of thing which they loathe in the exhibition gallery, by this means he has familiarized a very wide public with the conventions of modern painting and has greatly increased the chances which modern painters, who are not involved with publicity, have of being appreciated and wildly enjoyed.”
Pick fought back against the ephemeral nature of posters by donating London Transport examples to the Victoria & Albert and other museums and by opening a store on Charing Cross Road that sold surplus printings directly to the public for a few shillings apiece. Despite his efforts, original London Transport posters are quite rare today.
London-based dealer Kiki Werth says they were hard to get when she entered the business in 1977 and have just gotten scarcer since. “I’ve had some only once, twice or three times,” she says. Nicholas Lowry, president of Swann Auction Galleries, speaking about the Sybil Andrews Wimbledon poster he sold last fall, says he has seen only five of them come to auction, which is “low for any poster.”
The world auction record for a London Transport poster is held by an example designed by Man Ray in 1937. Colloquially called “Planets,” it depicts a London Underground roundel, drained of color and looking distinctly Saturn-like, hovering above a ringed planet on a void-of-space black background. It sold at Christie’s South Kensington in June 2007 for £50,400 ($100,900) against an estimate of £30,000–50,000 ($60,000–100,000). London Transport actually produced a pair of posters, intended for side-by-side display, which shared the same Man Ray image. One says “London Transport” at the bottom, and its sibling says “Keeps London Going.” The one that sold at Christie’s in 2007 had the latter slogan. Sophie Churcher of the poster department at Christie’s South Kensington credited the poster’s auction success to several factors: its artist, its rarity and its inventive riff on the roundel.
Lowry rates the Man Ray as a “10 out of 10” for rarity, but adds that even a big name can’t overcome a weak poster design. “László Moholy-Nagy did one for the London Underground on how electric doors work,” he says, referring to a 1937 poster titled Quickly away, thanks to pneumatic doors. “It sucks. It’s lousy. That was a great artist having a crappy day.” (Quickly away last sold at Swann in 2005 for $5,520, with premium, against an estimate of $4,000–6,000.)
Not even Kauffer was immune to bad days. “We see a huge variation in the prices he gets,” says Churcher. “The great ones can go for £30,000. The less interesting ones can go for £500.”
The poster program was never the same after Pick retired in 1940, though several other factors contributed to its decline. World War II shifted the program’s focus away from country frolics to instructions on what to do in an air raid, and it brought paper shortages that forced the program to reduce the number of images it produced. The poster ultimately lost its primacy as a public communications tool, its power eroded by radio and television, but it continued in a scaled-down capacity. In 1934, London Transport produced 140 posters; 70 years later, the number had dwindled to 20.
The most popular poster from recent times is The Tate Gallery by Tube, from 1986, which depicts the London Underground map in lines of paint squeezed directly from a tube with the roundel on its label. It’s a sign of the times that the design was the product of an ad agency rather than an individual artist. More tellingly, though, it drew its strength from a design icon that Frank Pick brought into being.