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London Underground Maps

Art, Design and Cartography


Claire Dobbin


Farnham: Lund Humphries in association with London Transport Museum, 2012

Hardback. 136p. ISBN 978 1848221048. £35.00


Reviewed by Hugh Clout

University College London


At the time of writing this review, many thousands of visitors from abroad and from provincial Britain are arriving in London to attend the 2012 Olympic Games. For them, the ‘Tube Map’ that can be consulted in paper or electronic form, or studied on the walls of Underground stations, will be an essential guide for navigating their course through the complexity of London’s public transport system. This multi-coloured chart is, of course, a simplified diagram that shows lines, stations, and interchange opportunities with other forms of transport, rather than being a genuinely geographical map. All  other aspects of information, such as real-world distance and accurate orientation, have been stripped away to produce an array of straight lines, angled in various ways, and an assemblage of named stations that are sited in roughly equidistant positions along the relevant lines. This latter characteristic can produce difficulties for the unwary. A distant memory from almost fifty years ago recalls the experience of a fellow student at the University of London who was aware that Underground stations in central London were close together and assumed from the evidence of the Tube Map that this was also the case in the outer suburbs. He recounted his dismay at having to walk briskly for a good half hour between two stations located toward the extremity of one of the lines to the north of London. In this richly illustrated book, Claire Dobbin (senior curator at the London Transport Museum) not only recounts how London’s simplified Tube Map came into being in 1933 and underwent subtle changes in subsequent years, but also presents a complementary story of how posters and maps were designed to advertise the capital’s electric train services operated by companies that composed what is now known as the ‘Tube’ or the ‘Underground’ network, despite not all tunnels literally being tubes, or all services running below ground.

London Underground Maps begins with a useful chronology (1863-2012) that itemises major events in the establishment of the network and in the development of the cartography of the Underground. A six-page introduction stresses that London pioneered this mode of urban transportation, which was the result of investment by various companies, thereby explaining some of the differences between lines. Now, the entire system comprises eleven lines serving 270 stations along more than 400 km of track. Early Underground maps superimposed the pattern of lines on to existing street maps and were sold, rather than being given away. In 1902, an organisation known as the Underground Electric Railways of London (UERL) came into being that duly opened new lines, incorporated pre-existing ones, and commissioned attractive posters and maps. Frank Pick joined the UERL in 1905 and later became managing director of the Underground, and then first chief executive of London Transport at its formation in 1933. Pick believed that good design was good for business, and would be convinced of the utility of a prototype of the modern Tube map sketched by a young engineering draughtsman, Harry C. Beck.

However, rather than focusing directly on Beck, Claire Dobbin turns to an earlier form of graphic depiction for her first chapter, that is devoted to decorative maps and posters designed during the first three decades of the twentieth century. They were the antithesis of Beck’s simplified diagram. Many of these decorative works were the product of MacDonald (Max) Gill who conceived intricate, colourful, and information-rich maps to advertise the Underground as an efficient and cheap means of transportation, and to reveal London’s complex geography of administrative buildings, shopping streets, theatres, and many other features. His promotional map of 1914, known popularly as ‘The Wonderground Map of London’, was full of visual and verbal jokes as well as useful information. This was followed by a map entitled ‘Theatre-land’ (1915), whose depiction of lamp-lit streets and theatres (shown as green-domed arcades) encouraged travel to the West End. Such expensive, multi-coloured creations were not possible during the latter part of the First World War, but once peace was restored Max Gill conceived other colourful extravaganzas, including one themed around the adventures of Peter Pan, a character developed by J.M. Barrie in 1904. Other designers competed with Gill to produce decorative maps and posters for special events (such as the British Empire Exhibition of 1924), for the rapidly growing network of motorbus services that linked surrounding towns and villages to the capital, and for boosting the promotion of suburban development in outer locations that were served by the Tube. In 1928, the UERL even published a facsimile of a map of the London area conceived by John Rocque and Richard Park in 1761, on to which the network of Tube trains was superimposed. Such intricate and sometimes fanciful representations continued to appear into the 1930s but in 1931 Harry Beck had the brainwave of producing a simplified map that some, but not all, commentators believed was inspired by a diagram for electric wiring.

Other designers, including Max Gill and F.H. Stingemore, had drafted geographically correct maps of the Underground network, showing individual lines by different colours and adopting a clear, standardised typeface. The modern architecture of outer stations, designed by Charles Holden and others during the 1920s and 1930s, was complemented by an entirely modern, stylised map for Tube travellers. Drawing on the rich archives of the London Transport Museum, Claire Dobbin reproduces Beck’s 1931 sketch for a diagrammatic map and his presentation drawing of the same year. It is fascinating to be shown how his ideas evolved on paper, with some alignments and redundant details being painted out in order to maximise legibility. In fact, these first attempts were rejected by the publicity department of the Underground but a revised and updated version was accepted in 1933. Pocket maps and poster versions were an instant success with travellers, and went through many revisions as the network was expanded and the aim of achieving ever-greater clarity was kept firmly in mind. Many of these modifications were the work of Beck but some were produced by other designers. Lettering, symbols, and depiction of the course of the river Thames were revised several times, with some of the most recent versions of the Tube map showing Overground and national railway lines, and fare zones across greater London. Some but not all of the colours designated by Beck to indicate individual lines remain in use eighty years later, but new ones, such as the Victoria and Jubilee lines, have required the introduction of new tints.

In the final pages of her book, Claire Dobbin shows how other cities modelled their public transport maps on Beck’s diagrams or, in the case of Paris, rejected his proposals. A fascinating facsimile of the Berlin S-Bahn map of 1931 [102] incorporated straight lines, 45-degree angles, an inner circle of tracks, and quite regularly-spaced stations to represent the city’s network of urban railways. One is left wondering if this diagram might have been a source of inspiration for Harry Beck. The book concludes with a discussion of the reproduction of Tube maps on cigarette cases, ladies’ powder compacts, headscarves, T-shirts and other memorabilia. The best-selling Underground poster, designed in 1987 by David Booth, showed the various lines squeezed out like paint from an artist’s tube, and thereby transformed the practical diagram into a semi-abstract, sculptural artwork. By contrast with such simplicity, London’s Tube lines figured prominently in a remarkably detailed hand-drawn map by Stephen Walter, entitled ‘London Subterranea’ (2012), which charted numerous tunnels, disused stations, and lost rivers that lie beneath the surface of the city.

With over 120 full-colour illustrations, London Underground Maps is a most attractive discussion at the convergence of art, design and cartography. Its text is clear and accessible for the general reader, whilst those with a more specialist interest in the topic will appreciate its suggestions for further reading. Typographical errors are few, although ‘(S48.5 miles) of track’ [12] should read ‘248.5’. I must quibble with the statement that ‘the fold-out maps’ of ca. 1900 ‘were sold for the modest sum of around a shilling (5p)’ [13]; one shilling was not a small amount over a century ago. More convincing is a later statement that ten guineas in 1923 was ‘the equivalent of well over £1000 today’ [36]. Claire Dobbin’s examination of the life and work of Max Gill – less known that that of his sculptor brother, Eric Gill – is particularly interesting. Indeed, Max Gill struck me as the ‘hero’ of the book rather than Harry Beck. The fact that Max had turned his creative energies to design work for the Imperial War Graves Commission during the First World War was news to me. His lettering was used to record the names of British and Empire dead and missing from both world wars and from subsequent conflicts, and is still being carved on the head-stones of fallen servicemen. This volume forms an excellent complement to the ‘Mind the Map’ exhibition (2012) at the London Transport Museum, curated by Claire Dobbin, and will appeal to many regular users of the city’s Tube network as well as to visitors in search of a lasting souvenir.


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