Show Me the Way: ‘London Underground Maps: Art, Design and Cartography’

The canon of books about the London Underground is larger than one might think, and a surprising proportion of these books concern themselves exclusively with the network’s iconic map. Claire Dobbin’s book is thus not a foray into a new area of investigation, but an addition to an established field of study. Its subtitle is ‘Art, Design and Cartography’, and it’s the first of these concepts that is most important here.

This is very much an art title, published by an art press, and with the copious and lavish illustrations that you would expect from such a book. Whereas the design and cartography of the Tube diagram have been studied extensively elsewhere, it is Dobbin’s interest in the art of the map that gives the book its relevance.

Her focus on this art spans two of the book’s three chapters. In the first she examines early Tube maps as works of art, and in the last she presents the more recent artworks that have been inspired by the Underground map. Sandwiched between the two is a more contextual, but nonetheless vital, chapter that covers the origins and evolution of the map as we know it today.

The London Underground map was designed in 1931 by Harry Beck, a London Transport draughtsman, and it was first published two years later. Its simplicity and navigability – the way in which it clearly conveys such a substantial amount of information – is what made it so revolutionary and influential. Beck achieved this by removing the topographic elements that had appeared on previous versions of the map. In his design, the location of roads, parks and other landmarks is inconsequential – what is important is the position of stations and railway lines in relation to one another.

Beck’s novel approach ensured his map’s influence: look at the maps of almost any rapid transit system in the world and their indebtedness to Beck will become apparent. The circles and ticks that signify stations and the angles of ninety and forty-five degrees that represent the twists and turns of lines have become a kind of language. It is the universality of this language that seems to have inspired artists to appropriate the map, toying with or subverting its established system.

Dobbin provides as comprehensive an overview of art inspired by the Underground map as can be found anywhere. The most famous of these is Simon Patterson’s 1991 piece ‘The Great Bear’, in which the names of each station are replaced by those of historical figures and celebrities. These figures are grouped by line, and at the points where they intersect the viewer is invited to draw connections. Patterson’s piece was the root of the more recent phenomenon of ‘map-mashing’, which really took off as the general public gained easier access to the internet and image editing software.

Countless appropriations of Beck’s map have been produced in this manner, with the names of stations replaced by anagrams, brand names, profanities and so on. Dobbin glosses over these examples of online guerrilla art – as a curator at the London Transport Museum she perhaps has a vested interest in preserving the brand of the map – but compensates for this by including a number of more striking pieces based on the map. Jonathan Parsons’ ‘Zoned Out’ and Claire Brewster’s ‘From a Time When Everything Seemed Possible’ turn Tube maps into sculpture, while Helen Scalway’s ‘Travelling Blind’ explores the way in which travellers perceive the map by inviting them to draw it from memory.

More interesting still, however, is the book’s first chapter, which is centred on maps as art that predate Beck’s design. Here, the central figure is the often overlooked artist MacDonald Gill, who created decorate poster maps of London’s transport system between 1913 and 1932. The first of these to be produced was the stunning ‘By Paying Us Your Pennies’, a relief map of the city that showed not only its stations – portrayed as little pagodas with the London Underground’s roundel mounted above their doors – but also buildings, vehicles and even figures, often shown engaged in quirky conversation with each other through speech balloons. This poster map became known as ‘The Wonderground Map of London Town’, and it’s not difficult to see why: Gill presents the city as a vibrant place of colour, life and fantasy.

It was followed by similar posters that in included maps of London’s Theatreland district, Kensington Gardens and eventually the country bus services outside of the city’s perimeter. They act as navigational tools, and as pieces of art replete with such surprising detail that travellers are said to have missed their stations while engrossed in them, and this dual function almost demands that they are given the same iconic status as Harry Beck’s later design. The fact that they are brought to the foreground in this book is therefore the most important of its numerous qualities.

RATING 8 / 10
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