‘London’s Nightly Carnival’
London is not ‘the city that never sleeps’. It has an engine – the low hum of business – that awakes at around 5:30am, and goes to sleep again towards midnight. The timings have always been the same, although before the wars of the 20th century and the rationing of travel Londoners ate much later.
The London Transport posters of the past record an extraordinary century and a half, and form a body of artwork unrivalled by any transport system. They promoted the city’s benefits, revealing its interiors and also showing how the tube could be used to travel to and from the countryside in ease and safety.
The tube was seen as a haven of humanity and speed – and even cleanliness. This fast new system of travel wiped away the chaos and dirt of the streets, where horses could still be found among motor carriages. It encouraged non-rush hour travels and promised a way to keep cool in summer.
Interestingly, the integrity of the art was considered as much as the message it provided, with a designated style for type and clean white space, and once this template was set in place it was carefully followed across the decades by a host of brilliant artists, just as the traffic furniture above it on the streets was designed to be seen in just black, white and red.Many of the paintings created an idealised version of London, an inverted dream city populated by elegant ladies in beautiful coats. Here, on the top of Oxford Circus tube station, the ice-cherub of winter looks down on the passers-by. No-one seems in any rush to cross the snowy traffic-free streets.
Some while back I kept the Christie’s catalogue of posters that they sold to collectors. The reserve prices were staggering, heading into many thousands of pounds. All of these examples are from that catalogue. Most posters follow the same style and format, although the catalogue has many examples of unusual shapes and colour palates. Umbrellas feature in many, and in some unlikely cases, parasols.
Many of the art pieces were highly whimsical and ran in sets. Wording is charming – I love the idea of ‘arresting the flying moment’. A beautiful series celebrating the five senses was called ‘The Riches of London’ by Frederick Charles Herrick. A constant theme is ‘Keeping warm below’, which suggests the London streets were once much colder than they are now. The joys of music, dance and performance were heavily touted.
Another recurring theme is the idea of staying out later and not having to rush for the last bus or train to the suburbs. There’s an emphasis on the city’s various pleasures, dining, theatres, spectacles, parades, cinemas and parks, and a great many sporting events in the outlying areas. Of course, the reality of the streets was slightly more drab than their idealised counterparts (but still relatively uncrowded).
There were ads for ‘Saloon coaches for theatre parties’, and angels were painted either lighting the way or watching over the populace in a common idea of safekeeping, shelter and ‘solid comfort’. Another suggestion was that one could ‘visit the Empire’ on the tube because all the corners of Imperial Britain were represented in the city, from Canada to Malaya and the Pacific Isles.
The idea that London is a ‘nightly carnival’ is sold with angels scattering stars. These posters only scratch the surface of the multitude of designs created for London Transport. The tradition continues to this day with regular new designs appearing all the time, although they lack the frivolity of past depictions. Here’s one recently designed for my neighbourhood, showing new double-deckers.