Art on the Underground

A new exhibition at the London Transport Museum celebrates the posters that have come to define travel in the capital, created by legendary names in the art and design world. Michael Walton discusses the work's enduring appeal.

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The London Transport Museum is the proud custodian of more than 5,000 posters produced by Transport for London and its predecessors from 1908 to date. Until the late 70s, all posters were commissioned directly through artists, designers or printers (many had their own art studios), or sometimes produced by in-house graphic designers. Advertising agencies first began to be used in 1977, initially Foote Cone Belding and, more recently, M&C Saatchi.

Frank Pick, the chief executive of London Transport until 1940, was responsible for the highest quality of architecture, graphic design, typeface, corporate identity, vehicle design and, of course, posters. He commissioned such legendary artists and designers as Edward McKnight Kauffer, Man Ray, Austin Cooper and the Zinkeisen sisters. The zenith of high-quality poster art was undoubtedly between 1920 and 1939.

The interwar period became important for the poster, whose only media competition was newspapers and magazines, together with cinema advertising and the nascent radio. Before the onset of mass car ownership, Underground, bus and rail were the main choices of travel for Londoners. Apart from general information posters, the main messages communicated were the promotion of distant destinations and off-peak attractions in London or the suburbs, with the purpose of generating additional off-peak travel revenue.

Controversially, I do not think many images of great note are now produced, constrained as we are by images that have many alternative uses other than on poster sites – for example, on various electronic media and, of course, the huge variety of often highly creative media that infiltrates our everyday life. Sometimes, posters are still produced that areincredibly popular with the public (and, incidentally, still by far the best test of a poster’s effectiveness). The most recent example is the TfL- designed Olympic rings poster published in late September 2012 to thank Londoners for their help in making the Games so successful. Selling 1,000 copies in a few days is a great testimony to great design.

The Poster Art 150 – London Underground’s Greatest Designs exhibition, opening on 15 February at the London Transport Museum, displays what is believed (often after heated debate by the judges) to be the best of the museum’s fantastic poster legacy. I hope that, in the future, we can continue to commission amazing work for display on what is, after all, Britain’s biggest and busiest art gallery, the London Underground. And, in so doing, continue with what the poster does best: communicating a simple idea quickly and with such style that it excites emotion.

Long live the poster!

Michael Walton is the head of trading at the London Transport Museum