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December 1, 2008

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AROUND THE INDUSTRY

London Transport Museum Celebrates 100 Years of Poster Design
By Susan R. Paisner
Senior Managing Editor


There is room in posters for all styles.  It is possible to move from the most literal representation to the wildest impressionism as long as the subject remains understandable to the men in the street.
                                                                                                                          Frank Pick, 1927
                                                                                                                          Managing Director
                                                                                                                          London Underground

LONDON – These days, when a public transportation agency wants a poster, it likely hires an advertising agency.  And the posters likely suggest that you travel on public transit.
But in the early 1900s, the London Underground’s Managing Director Frank Pick had a different idea.  Given responsibility for publicity, he saw that early efforts had been ineffective:  posters were predominantly text-based and failed to convey any specific corporate identity.  Pick was a visionary in the need for corporate “branding” – with the roundel logo now associated with Transport for London begun under his watch in 1908. 
The Underground (then called London Transport) became famous for its use of publicity posters to promote off-peak activities and to show the variety that London could offer in sports, leisure, and entertainment.

Over 60 original artworks – before they became posters – are now on display as part of a new retrospective exhibition at the London Transport Museum. The Art of the Poster – a Century of Design opened in October and running through March 31, 2009, celebrating 100 years of outstanding poster design for London’s public transport network.

“All the posters suggest a place to go to – a soft sell approach to advertising – vs. what we do today,” said Claire Dobbin, a co-curator of the exhibit along with David Bownes.

Through the use of posters, the company became a pioneering patron of poster art, and the Underground was transformed, Dobbin said, into London’s “longest art gallery.”

Pick frequently commissioned many more designs than he would necessarily need to ensure having a wide range to choose from.  Sometimes the artwork commissioned would be used two years later, but sometimes, not at all. 

Once, 5,000 copies of a poster went up one day and caused an uproar so pronounced, those 5,000 posters were taken down the very next day.  This was the Lord Mayor’s Show, where the artist had used a gun motif.

Under Pick’s guidance, London Transport commissioned work from the best artists and designers in the country – partly to convince people to use the system – but also to change how they might feel about using it.  He commissioned a range of fine artists – a way of adding to the variety of styles – but it also added to the prestige of the Underground – as well as to the artists themselves.  “Great to have on your CV,” said Dobbin, and it was also a “dream job” for design students coming out of college.

“Individuals would refer to themselves as ‘poster artists’ – that was a job in itself,” said Dobbin.  “They borrowed aesthetic styles from fine artists – filtering these avant garde styles down to the man on the street.”

History of Poster Design

During the World War I years, the posters served as propaganda as well as publicity efforts, with designed ranging from graphic realism to a more typical depiction of war as an idealized struggle.  And before there was a draft in 1916, various posters encouraged men to volunteer to fight.
During World War II, posters once again held a propaganda function.  This time, they not only kept passengers informed about new wartime procedures, but they were also designed to help morale and to commemorate the immense contribution made by London Transport workers at home and abroad.

Due to financial cutbacks, it wasn’t until 1947 that Harold F. Hutchison was named Publicity Officer.  Because much of London Transport’s system had to be repaired, he recognized the need to reassure the public that the system was safe to use.   To do this, he developed “pair posters,” where one half of the poster was commissioned art – not necessarily related to transportation – and the other half held text – directly related to the system.
In the 1980s when London Transport increased fares, it suffered a decrease in passengers, which in turn resulted in a lessened demand for advertising space.  For a while, when spaces weren’t sold, either old posters were left to tear and fade, or the space was simply covered over in black paper.  This resulted in depressing looking passenger cars.  Further, said Dobbin: “The patronage that London Underground provided for artists was in danger of being lost.”  So those empty ad spaces?  London Transport began installing bright new posters.  “It instilled goodwill in the passengers and improved the customer’s environment,” she said.

Original Artwork

One of the fascinating aspects of this exhibit is that it shows the original artwork – before the art was made into a poster.  Each framed piece of art has a label next to it with information about the artist and a picture of what the poster eventually looked like.  In some cases, there are distinct changes in color.  Sometimes that was deliberate, said Dobbin – such as “London Transport Opens a Window,” by Graham Sutherland in 1933, of a table and curtains looking out into a back yard.  The original art was largely brown and beige, but the finished product had red drapes and a very green lawn and trees.  Other times, however, the color changes were simply a function of the printing process.
This exhibit explores the relationship among fine artists, graphic designers, and the commission process, frequently revealing fascinating stories behind some of the works on display, including why the painting by world renowned artist John Nash was never published.

The focus of the exhibit, said Dobbins, is on “the artwork and the artists who made them.”

Dobbin and her co-curator Bownes faced a difficult yet exhilarating challenge:  Selecting which 64 pieces of art to choose from 800 available.  In making their decisions, they wanted a wide chronological spread, a range of different media and styles, and really good examples of certain techniques of a certain time. 

“The art worked then in terms of keeping the traveling public happy,” Dobbins said, in reference to the 100-year history of the posters, “and now in terms of keeping our exhibition viewers happy.”

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