London’s Tube maps are among the most iconic and well-known pieces of art in the capital. Their presence is inescapable for people using the Underground and brighten up the daily commute no end.
Now, a major exhibition about the inspiration, history and creativity behind the London transport maps opens on May 18, featuring a huge collection of these wonderful works. Mind the Map: inspiring art, design and cartography plunders the London Transport Museum’s vast map collection to explore the themes of journeys, identity and publicity.
We asked curator Claire Dobbin to pick six of her favourites and tell us why they’re so special.
Presentation drawing for Underground map, by Harry Beck, 1931
“The presentation drawing that Harry Beck speculatively submitted to the Underground’s Publicity Office in 1931, proposing for the first time a diagrammatic approach to mapping the tube, is one of my favourite objects in the Museum’s collection. It represents a key moment in design history, which is now rightly seen as a major breakthrough in communication graphics, but that is not why I love it. It’s why as a design historian I admire it and why as a curator I treasure it but, as a Londoner, I love the design for the impact it continues to have on my everyday life in the capital.”
The Tate Gallery by Tube, by David Booth of the agency Fine White Line, 1987
“London’s Tube map is one of the most widely recognised maps in the world. Beyond its primary purpose as a tool for navigation, it has become an integral part of the Underground’s graphic identity and a powerful symbol for London. The distinctive diagrammatic map is part of popular visual culture – it sells products, influences commercial advertising and has inspired artists and the public imagination worldwide.
“The Tube map has been creatively adapted by artists and designers since it was introduced, particularly in posters commissioned to promote the Underground, which have drawn on the map’s distinctive form and exploited its popularity with the public.
“David Booth’s adaptation of the Underground map in his iconic poster The Tate Gallery by tube represents lines as paint squeezed from a ‘tube’. After grappling with many mock-ups in toothpaste, the final artwork was modelled in plastic. The award-winning design is the best-selling Underground poster of all time.”
Global Underground, by Yinka Shonibare, 2006
“Since 2004, artworks have been specially commissioned for the front cover of the pocket Tube map. In different ways, they respond to the map’s design, function or status. The series has been commissioned by Art on the Underground, London Underground’s public art programme.
“A new film presenting a series of interviews with the artists who have produced artworks for the Tube map cover features in the exhibition. One of my favourites is Global Underground by Yinka Shonibare. It sums up modern London – a cosmopolitan city visited and inhabited by people from all corners of the world – all of whom travel together by Underground.”
Visit the Empire, by Ernest Michael Dinkel, 1933
“In contrast to Yinka Shonibare’s representation of London and its position or relationship to the rest of the world is a poster from 1933. Visit the Empire encouraged Underground passengers in the 1930s to visit ‘the wealth, romance and beauty’ of the British Empire, recommending The Zoo, Kew Gardens and museums as destinations in London where the riches of Britain’s distant colonies could be explored by all.”
By paying us your pennies, by MacDonald Gill, 1914
“A lesser-known strand of the Underground cartographic history is the use of decorative poster maps for publicity. Pioneered by MacDonald Gill’s By Paying Us Your Pennies in 1914, these distinctive maps provided a modern way to promote leisure travel in London. Far from conforming to the typical, idealised imagery of contemporary travel posters, Gill’s By paying us your pennies (which became popularly known as The Wonderground Map) presents some startling sights. A living River Serpentine, for example, snakes its way through Hyde Park towards a public hanging from the Tyburn Tree. Packed with quirky references and witticisms, visitors to the exhibition will undoubtedly be drawn to explore the maps in detail. When Gill’s first poster was introduced on Underground station platforms, almost 100 years ago, some passengers became so enthralled that they actually missed their trains!”
London Subterranea by Stephen Walter, 2012
“Stephen Walter presents a modern take on Gill’s decorative maps in his new artwork London Subterranea, commissioned especially for the exhibition. In mind-bogglingly meticulous detail, he has mapped out what lies beneath the capital, from secret tunnels and burial sites to disused stations and lost rivers. It is a phenomenal work of art, which we are delighted to have as part of our permanent collection, and the limited edition print published by TAG Fine Arts is causing quite a stir in the art world, which is wonderful.”
Mind the Map will be accompanied by an extensive public events programme and a book to be published by Lund Humphries – London Underground Maps: Art, Design and Cartography (£29.95 from London Transport Museum’s Covent Garden and online shops).
Mind the Map: inspiring art, design and cartography
London Transport Museum, Covent Garden, WC2E 7BB
Neatest tube: Covent Garden
£13.50, concs £10, under-16s FREE