Written by Caitlin Condell, Associate Curator and Head of Drawings, Prints, and Graphic Design
After more than a year at home, many of us are aching for the joy of travel and escape. These days, we tend to indulge our temptation for travel through social media, magazines, blogs, and television programs. But as London begins to reopen from its most recent pandemic lockdown, it is an opportune moment to reflect on how the city became a travel destination for both residents and tourists a century ago through a different medium—the poster.
In 1920, the American art critic Robert Allerton Parker visited London and declared that the city was “mad over advertising.” He described a city plastered with posters, most notably lining the walls of subway stations and the exteriors of buses. This urban transformation had not occurred haphazardly. Rather, it was the result of a coordinated effort by Frank Pick, the publicity manager for Underground Electric Railways of London (UERL).
By the 1910s, the UERL managed and operated most of London’s buses, trams, and subways and was undergoing rapid expansion. Pick, a lifelong civil servant, believed that publicity was critical to attracting and sustaining ridership. His aim was not only to promote mass transit, but to champion London as “the most interesting city in the world.” He converted railway stations into urban galleries, hiring artists to create posters that put an emphasis on leisure travel.
Among the artists that Pick commissioned in 1915 was a young American ex-patriot named E. McKnight Kauffer. Kauffer’s love of landscape was a good match for his first Underground poster commissions, which illustrated scenic destinations such as Godstone, Reigate, Oxhey Woods, and the North Downs. Each of these locations could be reached by London’s newly coordinated bus and train services. Yet some of the posters omitted even a route number, making them a subtle visual enticement rather than practical guidance for travel. Kauffer’s posters had an immediate impact. “If the constant variety of subject and presentation had accustomed the public to expect surprising things in Underground advertising,” recalled Pick’s assistant Christian Barman, “they were nevertheless somewhat startled by the forcefulness” of Kauffer’s landscapes, which were rendered in simplified forms and flat planes of bold color.
By the early 1920s, Kauffer had become the leading poster artist in London and a spokesperson for the power of the poster to inform the public and support industry. The Underground, colloquially referred to as the “Tube,” was regularly described in the press as the people’s art gallery. But in most American cities, there was no immediate appetite for the coordinated efforts at mass communication that Pick had pioneered. Parker, the American critic, wrote that “[i]t is one of the peculiarities of the British idea of advertising that posters are designed and placed in the “Tube” stations to entice the public to go by the underground railway out to suburban and country spots. To a New Yorker it is as though the Interborough [subway] should display posters enticing us to Van Cortlandt Park or the Bronx Zoo by subway, or to join the merry five o’clock throng on the Forty-second Street shuttle!”
Kauffer briefly moved to New York in 1921, seeking a market for his provocative poster work. But few clients were willing to take a chance on Kauffer’s radical style, which drew on emerging modernist trends, including strong use of geometry. Within months he returned to London, where he would stay until 1940, designing more than 125 posters for the Underground. His images promoted a new understanding of the richness of urban life, urging commuters to utilize the transportation system to visit the museums at the heart of the city and the lush countryside at its outskirts.
Together, Pick and Kauffer revolutionized urban advertising. Though the publicity approach of the Underground was never quite replicated in America, the notion of subterranean travel as a marketing opportunity remains in use today in nearly every municipal subway and bus system in the country. But Pick and Kauffer delivered more than simply a new model for mass communication. They taught the public that the joys of escapist travel were available to everyone right in their own city. One need only hop on the Tube.
We’re delighted you could join us for this excursion to the London Tube. Stay tuned for the exhibition Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer coming soon…
McKnight Kauffer, A Commercial Artist with Ideals, Caitlin Condell and Emily M. Orr (Hyperallergic, 2020)
McKnight Kauffer: The Artist in Advertising, Caitlin Condell and Emily M. Orr, eds.(Cooper Hewitt/RizzoliElecta, 2020)
McKnight Kauffer: A Designer and His Public, Mark Haworth-Booth(reprint V&A Publishing, 2007)
Art for All: British Posters for Transport, Teri J. Edelstein, ed. (Yale University Press, 2010)
Frank Pick’s London: Art, Design and the Modern City, Oliver Green (V&A Publishing, 2013)