Art Goes Down The Tube



Back in the 1920s the London underground tube system was updated from its dark-wood Victorian designs and enjoyed a unified modernist look that lasted for the next 60 years – clean lines, matching tiles, elegant lighting and streamlined simplicity.

By the time the 1980s arrived, the wheels were really starting to come off the system. It needed massive infrastructure investment to cope with the expanding city and stations, particularly the interchanges, had not been modernised for decades. Many passageways still had the old steel flood doors that had fascinated me as a small boy. The stations had always leaked (Baker Street and Great Portland Street still do) but the passages were falling apart.

In came a scheme to revamp the busiest ones. But, like so many things in the eighties it was largely about appearances, not tackling the deeper problems. The Northern line was the beneficiary of some tarting up, including Chaucerian imagery at Charing Cross (not bad), film strip imagery at Leicester Square (awful, and now out of date) and Eduardo Paolozzi’s circus-coloured murals at Tottenham Court Road tube (Paolozzi designed the huge statue at the British library). This was my stop for the office, and while some of the designs were pretty enough most seemed disproportionate for the station, cluttered, fussy and gaudy. Crucially, they made the station looked even more cramped and dirty, when what was obviously needed was a station redesign, not a lot of expensive murals.


At the time everybody hated them, and there were many complaints that the redecoration plan was little more than a sticking plaster on a broken limb. What was needed was a radical rethink of the central system. Now rebuilding is resulting in new clear layouts with a definite design ethic – stations like the bridge-spanning Blackfriars are a triumph and a way forward that can cope with increased demand.



Tottenham Court Road interchange needed a massive rebuild that’s taking years. In the process, TfL appear to have dumped three of the Eduardo Paolozzi tiled arches and would presumably have got rid of more, until a heritage group and a public protest highlighted the issue. The question is; were all of them worth keeping? Certainly not as they originally stood, surrounded by bits of red tin with holes punched in it, but perhaps as art panels? They should definitely have been kept somewhere, but how much do you preserve? I wonder if 1920s passengers complained about updates to the Victorian designs.


In related news, TfL is getting rid of all twenty of London’s ‘ghost stations’ – hauntingly photogenic abandoned stations which really serve no use now except for the odd photo-shoot – but are also set to build on another thirty liminal spaces they own in, around or under stations. Will this affect the fringe theatre groups, bars and other venues which have used some of these spaces for years? Presumably the Southwark Playhouse, which has already moved railway arches twice, will be heading off again…meanwhile, at the top and bottom of this column, we have shots of Southgate Station’s 1920s look, which have been preserved.


5 comments on “Art Goes Down The Tube”

  1. Alan Morgan says:

    I remember the flood gates, and the odd puddle. Not recalled such in years. A flash shot memory from a boy. Thank you!

  2. Vivienne says:

    Until I was six my nearest station was Bounds Green, which could be the top 1920s picture. Wonderful. There are still some lamps when you reach the bottom of the escalator, but those alongside were removed – presumably as people could slide down and injure themselves, sigh. I agree Tottenham Court Road is messy and would not miss the murals. I was very pleased when they renovated Russell Square with replica old tiles, and love the way the diamond pattern of tiles on the wall there, and at Gloucester Road, have an optical illusion quality of being slanted.

  3. charles, another one! says:

    Well of course the Paolozzi murals are not to everyone’s taste, but how often does a really great artist get a commission like that? I think most people are brought up short by them and they certainly prepare you for the sensory shock awaiting you above ground, though I am not sure if there is an above ground at Tottenham Court just now?
    Mike Goldmark has been selling some of the preparatory drawings for a while at
    but only has one left. The cost for just this one is £19,750, so TfL may be missing a trick if they have just tipped the arches into a skip. I don’t think the great man can be blamed for the way TfL looked after and maintained the station.
    I used to use TCR quite regularly in the 80s, for the Central Line, it was the station where I waded into a stabbing, preventing someone getting knifed on the down escalator; only after the adrenaline wore off did I wonder what the f*** I had done.
    I used to enjoy the sculpture by Paolozzi in High Holborn (no.34?), which seemed to like a smoke; most days he had a cigarette in his mouth. Sadly that got sold off when the building changed hands. But what an extraordinarily generous move on the part of the original developer, to incorporate such a piece of work at street level, even though the post-modern style building wasn’t to my taste!
    Have to agree about the rubbish decorations at Leicester Square, what a shame they didn’t try to incorporate the starling swirls/swarms(?) that used(?) to be such a feature of the sky there.
    One of the best re-claddings at that time was the simple graphic one at Embankment, which seems to have survived the latest overhaul.

  4. charles, another one! says:

    Not sure if you have mentioned the pubs that used to be on some stations. I remember there was a small bar at the bottom of the escalator on the west bound Circle Line platform at Sloane Square, presumably it closed in the 70s. That would be under the pipe which carries the Westbourne across the station, thus striking two B&M obsessions at once.

  5. charles, another one! says:

    Of course I should have checked IanVisits:
    Apparently it didn’t call last orders till 1985.

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