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Arts

All aboard

The Art of the Poster — A Century of Design
London Transport Museum, Covent Garden Piazza, WC2, until 31 March

18 February 2009

12:00 AM

18 February 2009

12:00 AM

The Art of the Poster — A Century of Design
London Transport Museum, Covent Garden Piazza, WC2, until 31 March

The first thing to say is that this is not an exhibition of posters. It is, in fact, an exhibition of the original art works from which were made some of the last century’s best LT posters. There are more than 60 exhibits, and many of the finest were commissioned by Frank Pick (1878–1941), a founding member of the Design and Industries Association and managing director of LT. He was one of those enormously influential background figures — like Jack Beddington at Shell — who was responsible for LT’s publicity from 1908, and aimed to sell the Underground through its destinations, its urban and green-belt attractions. Nikolaus Pevsner called Pick ‘a modern Medici’, and his work as a patron of contemporary artists was indeed outstanding. LT has attempted to continue this tradition since Pick’s golden age, with rather mixed results.

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Although the visitor has to endure the intrusive cacophony of competing soundtracks in the museum itself to get to this exhibition, the display is in a relatively peaceful self-contained mezzanine gallery. The show starts with a 1908 gouache by John Hassall entitled ‘No need to ask a p’liceman’, with a caped bobby gesturing to the Tube map behind him. This is the first pictorial poster commissioned by Pick and what a distance has been travelled when one compares it to the design nearby for Tom Eckersley’s Cup Final poster for 1938, with its modernist simplifications and streamlined effects. On the opposite wall are more recent works, such as R.B. Kitaj’s 1992 oil ‘Find Michelangelo at the V&A’, a Howard Hodgkin gouache of Highgate Ponds and Ruskin Spear’s barmaid pulling a pint above collaged pages from that quintessential London paper, the Evening Standard.

A perennial subject for posters is the attractions of the surrounding countryside for grid-locked urbanites. But look at Charles Pears’s oil of ‘Eastcote’ in Middlesex. I’d have thought that, with its airborne ring of fairies floating in the treetops against an almost apocalyptic orange sunset, it might even deter people from visiting this suburb. Much more appealing are the bright flat colours of Dorothy Dix’s 1921 gouache ‘The Hop Gardens of Kent’. Then comes a group of three unused designs: a lovely watercolour of Greenwich Observatory by Eric Ravilious, which was peremptorily dismissed by LT’s publicity officer as ‘completely useless for the purpose of attracting traffic to Greenwich’. Secondly, an evocative and suitably romantic gouache called ‘Spring in the Village’ by Edward McKnight Kauffer, showing a chestnut tree in bloom towering over quaint village houses. This was cancelled because of bad timing: specifically, the outbreak of war in 1939.

The third reject is a large oil of the Chilterns by John Nash, painted in 1950. Harold Hutchison, LT publicity officer, wrote to Nash: ‘While I would love to have the painting you have done on my walls, I think on coming back to it that its colour tempo is too quiet for the walls of our stations.’ He probably had a point, but why then didn’t LT commission a design in watercolour, a medium in which Nash excelled? Perhaps he was offered more money for an oil, and such are the practical considerations that activate the artist.

It is the interwar modernist posters that exert the most lasting appeal, both in terms of dynamic design and imaginative depth. There’s a lovely decorative Bawden of Hyde Park done when he was just 22, next to a strong Clive Gardiner of Windsor. McKnight Kauffer gives us ‘Power’, a human fist sparking thunderbolts, one of his most effective designs, and there are good things by Barnett Freedman, Edward Wadsworth, C.R.W. Nevinson, Graham Sutherland and William Roberts.

A handsome book London Transport Posters: A Century of Art and Design (Lund Humphries, £30) accompanies the exhibition. It doesn’t feature everything in the show — not the John Nash, for instance — but it does contain over 250 images and much history. Frank Pick emerges as remarkably idealistic. He wrote that successful posters should not only encourage people to use LT but establish ‘good will and good understanding between passengers and the companies’. He also considered that LT should share in ‘the transformation of our urban civilisation into some fine flower of accomplishment’. High-flown sentiments perhaps, but better to aim for the stars than the gutter. A Spectator reader brought this exhibition to my attention and for that I am most grateful. It’s a real oasis among the alarms and excursions of London today.

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