What the posters of the London Underground tell us

As the London Transport Museum prepares to welcome the public to its Museum Depot for a “poster tour”, senior curator Nicola Pickering tells us about how its collection of 7,000 posters tells a story of both a social history and a design history.

No Need to ask a P'liceman, by John Hassall
No Need to ask a P’liceman, by John Hassall

The London Underground has a rich legacy of commissioning contemporary artists and illustrators that was begun in 1908 by Underground Group publicity officer Frank Pick.

When Pick commissioned illustrator John Hassall to produce No Need To Ask A P’liceman he set a precedent that can be traced through to the Art on the Underground scheme run by TfL today.

“Pick would either go to established artists or more up and coming Avant-garde artists, meet them and set up interviews; he became really immersed in the design process,” says Pickering.

The Underground Group and later London Transport went on to commission the likes of Man Ray, Abram Games and Edward McKnight Kauffer.

The changing commissioning process

“London Transport continued with Pick’s model but later in the 20th century the commissioning process changed,” according to Pickering, who says consultancies began to be used.

Today TfL has gone full circle and contemporary artists are commissioned directly in the way Pick would have done.

Graphics trends

As a collection, the London Underground posters are a barometer for graphics trends of the time with examples from every decade without any gaps and Pickering says the London Transport Museum is always interested in acquiring more.

The tour takes in a selection of these posters and covers each decade, in some cases displaying original designs next to prints.

“We have several hundred original artworks,” says Pickering “and you’ll get to see everything displayed on the walls rather than hidden away in enormous plan chests.”

Man Ray’s London Keep’s Going

Visitors will be able to see Man Ray’s 1938 poster Keeps London Going, which gives the famous roundel a surreal and celestial makeover.

Pickering says the “renowned and experimental design” is one of her favourites along with Edward McKnight Kauffer’s The Nerve Centre of London’s Underground.

“In McKnight Kauffer’s design you can see the design process at work across different versions. They had to edit the ‘re’ of Centre, which was originally spelt the American way.”

The tour

The tour takes place at the Museum Depot in Acton, West London,  rather than the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.

Pickering says: “The thing people tend to love is it’s a working space and you can see all the enormous plan chests and get a feeling of how everything works behind the scenes – although many of the posters are on the walls, not hidden away.”


For more info on the tours head here.

Art Today, by Hans Unger
Art Today, by Hans Unger
Brightest London, by Horace Taylor
Brightest London, by Horace Taylor
London After Dark, by Fred Millett
London After Dark, by Fred Millett
London Keeps Going, by Man Ray
London Keeps Going, by Man Ray
London Zoo, by Abram Games
London Zoo, by Abram Games
Power, by Edward McKnight Kauffer, 1930
Power, by Edward McKnight Kauffer, 1930
Theatre - go by Undeground, by Barnett Freedman
Theatre – go by Undeground, by Barnett Freedman
The Hive is Awake, by Walter E Spradbery
The Hive is Awake, by Walter E Spradbery
The Tate Gallery by Tube, by David Booth, 1986
The Tate Gallery by Tube, by David Booth, 1986
This Is All In The Air, by Montague B Black
This Is All In The Air, by Montague B Black
To Wood Lane, by Frederick Charles Herrick
To Wood Lane, by Frederick Charles Herrick

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