The Underground – I’m thinking of the London one, but this applies equally to the Paris métro or the New York subway – is not a place you would imagine anyone goes for pleasure. There are those gloomy connotations of the realm we are all headed for eventually, and crowded underground trains can be not just intimations but approximations of hell. When Henry Moore was making his celebrated crayon drawings of people sheltering and sleeping in the corridors and on the platforms of the London Underground during the second world war, he called it, with an anger and indignation that get forgotten as the works are seen as validations of the human spirit, “the most pathetic, sordid, & disheartening sight”.
These drawings, which feature in the Henry Moore exhibition at Tate Britain, are probably the most famous examples of underground art but they are not the first or the last. The oldest art we know adorns the walls of underground caverns. More recently, London’s Underground, unlike New York’s severely functional subway, has had a long and fruitful relationship with the arts.
The Maecenas of London’s Tube was Frank Pick, described by the art historian Nikolaus Pevsner in 1942 as “the greatest patron of the arts whom this century has so far produced in England”. Pick, the son of a Lincolnshire draper, was also one of the most admirable public servants in British history, who made the London Underground a model all over the world not simply for efficiency but for beauty and generosity of spirit.
As commercial manager and then managing director of the Underground in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, Pick commissioned some of the best graphic artists, designers and architects of his time to give aesthetic lift to a transit system millions might regard as merely a conveyor belt to work. Integral to his plan was encouraging commuters to raise their horizons and see the Tube as a gateway to culture and the countryside. Posters by E McKnight Kauffer, Man Ray and Graham Sutherland, textiles by Paul Nash and Enid Marx, stations designed by Charles Holden all bear witness to Pick’s vision. When Pick left London Transport in 1940 to run the Ministry of Information, he apprised Churchill that he would not tell lies in public information films. “Who will rid me of this impeccable busman?” was Churchill’s response.
The vision of the impeccable bus-and-train-man was betrayed during the long years of underinvestment in the Tube but never entirely forgotten. For the past 10 years Transport for London has run a scheme called Art on the Underground, “working with artists to produce and present new artworks to enhance and enrich the journeys of millions on the Tube every day”. The scheme has ambition; the aim is to provide “world-class art for a world-class Tube” and deliver “a high-calibre contemporary art programme”.
It all sounds positive and promising, but I have a few cavils. First, I wonder how many Londoners have noticed Art on the Underground over the past 10 years. Speaking for myself, whereas the more modest Poems on the Underground initiative has enriched many of my journeys, Art on the Underground has impinged on very few of them. Many of the commissions are station-specific. It’s obviously a challenge to spread artworks across a huge network.
Art on the Underground seems to exemplify two opposing trends in contemporary public art commissioning. The first is to think of art as a mirror of life, showing it truthfully, not attempting uplift. Examples, touching in their way, are Dryden Goodwin’s “Linear: 60 Portraits of Jubilee Line Staff” and Sarah Butler’s “Central Line Stories”. The second trend is towards grander and more abstruse work. John Gerrard’s “Oil Stick Work”, a digital artwork that will be projected 24 hours a day on a vast screen at Canary Wharf station, is a fascinating and profound piece, but whether an Underground station is the best place to appreciate it I am not sure.
All are worthwhile but none are quite what Frank Pick had in mind when he thought of bringing art to the Underground. Pick sought not modern life in art but art in modern life. He wanted art to be neither passively reflective of life nor hieratically set aside from it, but an active force running through it and transforming it for the better.
The simple fact is that commercial advertising has come to dominate the Tube. We are assailed by images which, using Pick’s criteria, are usually neither truthful nor pleasing, or certainly not both at the same time. Filled with a moral fervour derived from Ruskin and William Morris, Pick set about transforming the look and feel of the system, with the posters of Ray and Kauffer, the typography and roundel of Edward Johnston, and Harry Beck’s familiar Tube map. He still seems more radical than his successors.
There is a talk about Frank Pick and designer Ambrose Heal at the London Transport Museum, April 13. www.ltmuseum.co.uk