Lara Prendergast Lara Prendergast

The female gaze | 2 November 2017

There is a rich tradition of female art running through London’s concrete veins

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.

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