The storied London Underground has been many things to many riders over the years a practical necessity, a wartime bomb shelter, a geographical puzzle, even a site of terrorist attacks. Yet one of its most striking distinctions is often overlooked: it was a showcase for some of the finest graphic art of the 20th century.
Starting in 1908, the Underground commissioned a stream of vibrant, original posters to adorn its trains and stations. Fundamentally they were highly effective advertisements, cajoling people to ride the Tube more often. But they were also much more. They celebrated the charms and attractions, the history and romance, of London itself. And they exposed passengers, almost without their noticing it, to the leading currents of artistic modernism. In 1928, the eminent critic Sir Lawrence Weaver compared the Underground to the city's prestigious art galleries when he wrote that it "has provided the people of London with a picture gallery as fine in some ways ... as the Tate or the National."
A rich sampling of the best of these works is now on view at Yale University's Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn. The exhibition, "Art for All: British Posters for Transport," runs through Aug. 15, then transfers in October to the Musée de l'Imprimerie in Lyon, France. Curated by art historian Teri J. Edelstein, along with the Yale Center's Scott Wilcox, the show is a revelation and a delight.
It also has an unseen hero. He is Frank Pick, the young solicitor who launched the poster campaign soon after going to work for the Underground and compulsively directed it until the day he retired as London Transport's chief executive in 1940. Pick had no artistic training, but he had a passion to merge art and commerce, a sharp eye for talent and a distinctive stylistic vision. He chose London Transport's iconic roundel logo and a clean, sans-serif typeface for its signs. He commissioned a consistent architectural style for its stations and a shapely map of its system that is still in use today. He even selected the textile designs for the trains' seats.
Pick's top priority, however, remained the posters. Perhaps the most gifted artist he recruited was the American-born Edward McKnight Kauffer, and one of the knockout posters in the Yale exhibition is Kauffer's Winter Sales Are Best Reached by the Underground (1922). A vortex of stippled blues, whites and grays represents storms of snow and wind, while within it five flat, almost abstract figures struggle against the elements. The main point is not portrayed but is powerfully conveyed nevertheless that shoppers would be ever so much warmer and cozier in the Underground than on the streets.
Pick realized that what would lure passengers and build goodwill were the pleasures of the destinations the shops, theaters, museums, zoos and country vistas that could be reached by Tube or bus. Hence, for example, the appeal of Margaret Calkin James' Bluebell Time in Kew Gardens (1931). James was one of a surprisingly large number of women artists commissioned by Pick, though her poster promoting the annual bluebell time at Kew Gardens is anything but conventionally feminine. Flanked by muscular tree roots, rows of grass and flowers are arrayed symmetrically in sturdy geometric patterns. The effect is the opposite of flowery, yet the vitality of the design suggests the lively profusion of the gardens' blossoms.
After Britain's hodgepodge rail network was formed into four regional railways in 1923, they emulated the Underground campaign in order to promote their own destinations. On the whole the railway posters were not as groundbreaking as the Tube's, but the exhibition offers several fine examples, including the saxophone-tooting fish in Frank Newbould's East Coast Frolics, No. 6: "Those Drier Side Blues" (1933) and the hauntingly empty, surrealistic landscape in Kauffer's Great Western to Devon's Moors (1933).