Every weekday, I travel by Tube to The Spectator’s office, staring at the posters plastered all over the walls. I like looking at the plays and exhibitions that have recently opened or wondering whether that shampoo really will add more ‘oomph’ to my hair.
Often there is a pretty girl on the poster. A picture of a woman can sell almost anything. I’ve rarely thought much about the individuals who produce the posters. But as a new exhibition at London’s Transport Museum called Poster Girls reveals, there is a rich history of female art running through the city’s concrete veins. For more than 100 years, the transport network has provided an exhibition space for some of Britain’s most talented female illustrators and artists — plenty of whom are quite unknown today.
Frank Pick is the man to thank for first championing the ‘poster girls’. He was the enlightened British transport administrator whose holistic civic vision transformed London. Under his watch, the Underground became an icon. He commissioned the Johnston typeface, the Charles Holden stations, the red and blue roundel and Harry Beck’s Tube map. He also encouraged a wide range of artists to create posters to promote London’s attractions. A century on, Transport for London now owns a collection of more than 5,000 original posters. To coincide with the anniversary of female suffrage next year, the museum has chosen to focus on the women artists who helped brighten up the city.
Pick recognised that transport posters needed to showcase an expansive mix of artistic styles. There was no point sticking with one style; passengers would quickly learn to ignore the poster — and its message. So in the first half of the 20th century, an extensive array of different designs were commissioned from both male and female artists. In 1910, the first poster by a woman appeared on the network. It was painted by Ella Coates and urged city dwellers to visit Kew Gardens by tram. It’s the first picture in the show, but the drab brown colours hardly make you want to rush down to the botanical gardens.
But what came next certainly is exciting. An advert from the 1920s for the ‘country joy’s of London’s Underground’ shows the goddess Flora gazing out across the city’s more pastoral spots. Another poster for a rugby union match depicts the players as figures on a piece of Greek pottery. One of the most prolific female artists who worked for London Transport was Anne Erica Thackery Perry or ‘Herry Perry’, as she was known. Commuters on the underground during the 1920s and 1930s would have come across her poster advertising Derby Day, which adapted Uccello’s Renaissance masterpiece ‘The Battle of San Romano’, or another design declaring the start of ‘blackberry time’.
As well as providing useful information, these posters offered a glimpse of some of the most avant-garde artistic developments of the period. Vera Willoughby incorporated art deco and cubist motifs into her images for the London bus network. Lilian Dring and Dora Batty took their inspiration from the futurists. ‘The Underground brings all good things nearer’ reads the slogan on one poster by Batty, which shows Persephone returning from Hades — a fitting description of the Underground.
Many of the early 20th-century poster girls were trained at the Central School, which later became Central St Martins. The school had been established a few decades after the Underground and the students and staff worked closely with London Transport. Frank Pick was also a close friend of William Lethaby, the Central’s first principal. They shared similar ideals and wanted to encourage a closer relationship between design and technology. A poster commission for the network was ‘the plum that we all look forward to’, wrote one artist. Most of the women who created posters were middle class, but there were exceptions. Sybil Andrews was a poster designer who worked as a welder in an aeroplane factory in order to raise the fees to pay for her art correspondence course.
While the stuffy, Victorian-era art schools believed it best for women to concentrate on flowers and animals, graphic design for the transport network was more liberating. Female artists were often given traditionally masculine subjects, such as sporting events or motor shows. By the time the second world war broke out, women were being commissioned to produce posters about the war effort, which included pictures of Spitfires, battlefields and barbed wire.
Some of the women had a terrific sense of humour. A poster from 1948 for ‘London’s open air’ suggests that there are ‘trees for all moods and all seasons’. ‘The romantic can discover a quick delight in the silver birches of Wimbledon Common,’ it says, with a nudge and a wink. Another poster from 1930 advertises Regent’s Park zoo, and puts London’s most serious creatures — Mayfair beauties, university undergraduates and parliamentarians — inside the cages. ‘Danger. Do not tease these people’ reads the sign on the zoo gate.
Who were all these women artists? Aside from Laura Knight and Mabel Lucie Attwell, I must admit I had heard of very few of them. Even the literature available in the catalogue is fairly scant. What’s clear, though, is that they brought a female sensibility to the transport network. In the wake of the two world wars, many women found themselves living alone. Posters were created that helped inspire ‘surplus women’ to be independent and bold, so that they might venture out alone. But by the 1950s, attitudes had shifted once more. As the writer Susannah Walker says, during the mid century, ‘Any woman traveller would have looked in vain to find herself represented on the walls of London’s Underground.’
By the 1960s, the ad men had taken charge. Posters began to be produced anonymously by advertising agencies rather than by direct commission from London Transport. Female artists slipped into the background and male executives took credit for much of the work. The 1980s saw a revival of the fine-art poster tradition, and by the 1990s London Transport had revived its ‘go places — do things’ message. But the later posters in the show have a whiff of design-by-committee. They lack the originality seen in the first half of the century.
Transport for London still commissions plenty of different posters, many of them by female artists. I met Anna Hymas, a graduate of Central St Martins, who last year won a commission — via an agency — to produce four posters about what to do in London after Christmas. ‘It is an illustrator’s dream to design for the Underground,’ she told me. Her posters have a gentle storybook quality to them and are, I would have imagined, what many people would like to see on their way to work. I sense, though, that London Transport is nowadays more concerned with alerting people to the dangers of travel, rather than the joys of it. Ominous adverts are everywhere, warning of dodgy minicab drivers and cads prowling round the network, ready to slip a hand up one’s skirt. Sensible, perhaps, although hardly in keeping with the emancipated spirit of the earlier poster girls.
A century ago, it would have been unthinkable that every day, millions of women would travel around London by themselves. Yet they were encouraged to do so by posters dotted throughout the city, many of them designed by women. The message was simple: come out of doors and enjoy everything the city has to offer.