From the iconic Fly the Tube poster to designs by women at a time when few women worked, a new exhibition celebrating the art of poster design is opening at the London Transport Museum.
For over a century, London’s transport body has been commissioning artists to design posters to encourage people to travel by tube, train and bus, to go shopping, to go partying, to visit London’s cultural venues.
The new permanent exhibition shows off not just the posters themselves but also the many artists behind the designs and how they created their artwork in a manner that would allow them to be converted into posters.
Some of the more fascinating insights are the letters from the archives, either from artists thanking the commissioner for payment for the work and the reasonable levels of artistic freedom offered to the comments from the other side, sometimes asking for changes. One design included the back of a bus, and LT rep is commenting that the backs of buses aren’t very interesting to look at.
It was London Transport’s Frank Pick who was not only responsible for much of the focus on good design as part of his remit to knit together a number of disparate services with a single identity, but he was also the man who commissioned many women artists to work on poster designs.
In the decades before computer-aided design, some of the very early drafts on show here include the sticky labels and layers of print that show how they were constructed before the final version was photographed. I was interested to see a Heathrow extension poster appears to have had the station names changed part way through the design.
The legendary designer Abram Games, made miniatures of his designs so he could stand back to see how they would look from the average distance they would be seen by a member of the public. One of them is included to show their impact on his art.
The designs on show are varied, often contemporary for their time, sometimes pushing at the edges of public acceptance.
As an exhibition, it’s a mix of seeing the evolution of poster design and how art trends changed over the decades and how transport itself has changed. And also society – I doubt you’d see many posters today promoting a trip to the theatre with images of an upper-class couple in black tie attire.
It can also be quite nostalgic if you spot a poster you particularly loved when it was used on the tube or in buses.
The exhibition opens on Friday at the London Transport Museum. The current selection of posters will be on display until 2025 before a refresh to show off a different selection. The exhibition is included in the standard entry charge to visit the museum.