There are a number of stereotypes attached to railway enthusiasts – socially inept, anorak-wearing, middle-aged loners with NHS spectacles and plastic lunchboxes. While undoubtedly this stereotype is vastly exaggerated and largely inaccurate, it is fair to say that there are certain qualities which might fairly be attributed to the average rail nut. The majority of active rail enthusiasts (not all of them, before you leave angry comments) tend to be middle-aged, politically conservative, technically-minded, musically retro, male and white.
Yet there is a subsection of rail enthusiasm to which these stereotypes are not generally attached. I refer to the Tubeheads – enthusiasts of the London Underground. While there are plenty of technically-minded Tube enthusiasts, there are seemingly just as many if not more who are not – perhaps the best-known Tubehead is the esteemed Annie Mole of Going Underground.
I came to reflect on this phenomenon on Saturday, when I visited the Museum Depot at Acton, where the London Transport Museum keeps its reserve collection. Twice a year it’s opened to the public. While I have reported on this before, today I saw some exciting new things that gave me an insight into the Tubehead phenomenon.
You see, I think the reason there isn’t a Tubehead stereotype comparable to the trainspotter one is because there is a lot more to being a tube enthusiast than just the trains. The sign on the right depicts the Roundel, which has become a symbol for the entire city. Similarly, the Underground itself has come to represent London. One of the iconic images of the Blitz is Londoners taking shelter in the stations. It was no accident that the 7/7 bombers chose to hit London’s transport, so dependent is the city on its network. Indeed, Christian Wolmar argues that the Underground was instrumental in the shaping of modern London – it encouraged the development of the suburbs and enabled commuting as we know it today. The Underground is the city.
Actually, Christian Wolmar was there at the event, and I saw his lecture based on his book The Subterranean Railway. Wolmar claims not to be able to tell one end of a locomotive from the other, being more interested in the social aspects of railways. However, his enthusiasm for the subject shines through and the talk was Most Enjoyable. I recommend his books for railway nuts and anyone with a passing interest in the subject.
Yet even the social aspect of the Underground doesn’t cover the full spectrum of Tubeheadedry, as was brought home to me by another of the Things To Do on Saturday. You see, the Underground has always had a very strong design aesthetic.
This was the case right from the days of Charles Yerkes, the American magnate who bought up the Piccadilly, Bakerloo, Hampstead and District lines to create Underground Electric Railways Limited. He engaged architect Leslie Green to create a distinctive unifying style for the company to make it instantly identifiable. Green came up with the distinctive oxblood station frontages still visible throughout Central London.
However, the Underground’s image as a kind of corporate style icon really came about when Frank Pick became Managing Director of the Underground Group in 1928. He hired Charles Holden to create up-to-date art deco stations, Edward Johnston to devise a special alphabet and some of the brightest new stars in graphic design to come up with posters. Pick was not really an engineer, but he understood well that good design is good publicity, and his legacy is felt right up to the present day.
The collection is nothing short of spectacular. According to the chap giving the tour (the Head of Collections, no less), the London Transport Museum can only put approximately 2% of its collection on public display at any time, although they do try to rotate the exhibits (again, not literally). The rest is kept at the Depot. “The rest” consists of almost every poster that London Transport has ever produced.
So in this back room in an industrial depot building in suburban Acton is perhaps the most impressive display of commercial artwork in London. It’s utterly spectacular, and I’m presenting here just a few of the photos I took. Posters line every wall, they’re on every table, they are literally all over the place.
I noticed a few art students among our party, and that’s not entirely surprising. Some of the names hired by Pick and his successors include Jacob Epstein, Man Ray and Edward McKnight Kauffer, often when they were fresh out of art school.
Consequently, original poster prints can be worth tens of thousands of pounds each.
You can therefore only imagine how jaw-dropping it was for us when we were taken through to the room where the original artworks were kept.
Here, on wire racks, are the original paintings from which some of the most highly-regarded images in the history of graphic design are taken. The experience is utterly surreal. By rights, these should be housed in some airy, purpose-built art gallery. But in fact, they’re just stored in a back room. Utterly bizarre. It’s like rummaging in Grandmother’s attic, if Grandmother was a multi-multi-multi millionaire.
One of these days I’m going to have to get around to robbing the place. [NOTE TO SELF: Don't leave this in the finished entry.]
So, to wrap up, it seems to me that the reason Underground enthusiasts are not limited to the technical types is simply because the Tube was very good at achieving its publicity aims – it’s not just a means of getting from A to B, it’s an integral aspect of London life. For all we may complain about engineering works and suchlike negative aspects, it’s a vital part of our historic, geographical, cultural and aesthetic identity as Londoners.
God, I do go on.
The London Transport poster collection is now online. Explore it for yourself, why not?