The Tube, the gesamtkunstwerk of early 20th Century British Modernism

I have recently been reminded, as if I (as an absolute Tube fanatic) needed it, of the wondrous and futuristic qualities of the London Underground. Now I admit this I difficult to envisage at 8:30 in the morning with your face in someone’s armpit when your train breaks down in a tunnel under Camden Town. But nevertheless just the notion of electric train hurtling through tunnels underneath one of the planet’s busiest cities is surely worthy of the sobriquet ‘futuristic’. The Tube, its design, its shape and extent tells us a lot about the nature of London in the first half of the 20th Century.

The expansion of the Tube network, most notably the Northern Line to Edgware in the north in 1924 and to Morden in the south in 1926 was responsible for providing people and property developers with the opportunity to travel easily to the city. The network was designed as an ‘object’ in and of itself. This was a significant factor in the way in which the suburbs the Tube linked to the City developed. This was not an accidental occurrence it was a plan formulated by a number of people.

Morden extension now open

Morden extension now open, by unknown artist, 1926 (Published by Underground Electric Railway Company Ltd, 1926. Printed by Waterlow & Sons Ltd, Format: Quad royal Dimensions: Width: 1255mm, Height: 1010mm Reference number: 1983/4/2129 © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)

Hendon-Edgware extension

Hendon; Edgware extension now open, by Charles Shepard, 1924 (Published by Underground Electric Railway Company Ltd, 1924. Printed by The Baynard Press, Format: Double royal. Stylistic influence: Decorative map. Dimensions: Width: 635mm, Height: 1016mm. Reference number: 1983/4/1634 © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)

 Chief amongst them as far as the London Underground was concerned was Frank Pick. Pick was a huge force in thedevelopment of the design coherence of the London Underground. Appointed ‘Commercial Manager’ in 1912 he was responsible for commissioning in 1915 calligrapher Edward Johnston to create a clear recognisable typeface for the London Underground network. The now famed Johnston Sans

Johnston Sans was the result and (with minor modifications) is still the typeface used by the current incarnation of the managers of London’s public transport system Transport for London. Along with a number of other influential designers and theorists Pick was also a founder member of the Design and Industries Association in 1915.

 “… the DIA set out to reconcile the ideas of [John] Ruskin and [William] Morris to the machine age by integrating art with industry, commerce, and education.”[1]

Brent station site (© TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)

Brent station site (© TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)

Pick boldly envisioned the expanding transport system as the modern equivalent of a medieval cathedral, an integrated work of art [or Gesamtkunstwerk] that would be a joy to both makers and users. Like the cathedrals, the transport system would provide a unifying function for society.”[2]

The use of the phrase “a joy to both makers and users” is significant as it is oft repeated tenet of William Morris as illustrated in a collection of his talks and essay from 1882 Hopes and Fears for Art[3] in which Morris says repeatedly “Art made by the people and for the people, a joy to the maker and the user.[4]

Morden under construction

Morden under construction (Inventory no: 2004/9789 © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)

“the expansion of the Underground in the twenties provided  Pick with his opportunity to realise the utopian ambitions the he… shared with other members of the DIA.

   He intended to use the expanding transport system to shape a new urban community.”[5]

Pick became noted for commissioning what was for the time quite radical poster art. The use of forms of Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism was not greeted by the profession of advertisers with any enthusiasm, and in some cases with outright patronisation. Particularly, as is recounted by Michael T. Saler in his book The avant-garde in interwar England: medieval modernism and the London Underground, by the Pear’s advertising director, who…;

“…wrote to the London Mercury in 1921 that

Impossible ducks, futurist trees, vermilion grass and such like absurdities may well appeal to… ‘higher thought’, but believe me, Sir, those people who live their lives in the ordinary conventional way, as do the bulk of the general public, need nothing more subtle in poster than a straightforward appeal to their sense of pleasure, duty or whatever it may be. They don’t understand, and have no wish to understand, the essentially unacademic.

Futurist trees

Futurist trees – Edgware by Tram, by Aldo Cosomati, 1923. (Published by Underground Electric Railways Company Ltd, 1923. Printed by J Weiner LtdFormat: Double crown. Dimensions: Width: 508mm, Height: 762mm. Reference number: 1983/4/1552. © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)

But Pick had faith in the public’s ability to appreciate the new spirit of art when it was directed toward specific ends:

Those who decry posters which for their understanding require pains and thought underrate the attractiveness of a puzzle, underrate the urge to stretch the mind a bit more than usual, underrate indeed the intellectual level of the urban population.”[6]


Hatfield by motor bus

Hatfield by motor bus, by Edward McKnight Kauffer, 1920 (Published by Underground Electric Railways Company Ltd, 1920. Printed by Dangerfield Printing Company LtdFormat: Double crownStylistic approach: Flat colour. Dimensions: Width: 508mm, Height: 762mm. Reference number: 1983/4/1024 © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)

Museum of Natural History

Museum of Natural History, by Edward McKnight Kauffer, 1923 (Medium: Gouache. Dimensions: Width: 356mm, Height: 535mm. Reference number: 1995/4088 © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)

“By using the stylistic hallmarks of the postimpressionists, such as simple two dimensional designs made up of sharp outlines and bold colors[sic], posters could telegraph their messages rapidly, unencumbered by the mediation of narrative. (Figure 2.4).”[7]

the North Downs

The North Downs, by D Legg, 1921.  (Published by Underground Electric Railways Company Ltd, 1921. Printed by Waterlow & Sons LtdFormat: Double royal. Dimensions: Width: 635mm, Height: 1016mm. Reference number: 1983/4/1159 © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)

“The Underground posters were the first to deploy the new styles in art and appear to have exercised a broad and possibly profound impact on all levels of society following the [First World]war. Many accounts in the press praised the Underground for bringing modern art to the people, turning the system into “the people’s picture gallery.”… the art critic Frank Rutter observed [1933] that the Underground had become in effect on the of the largest and most influential art galleries in the country.”[8]

Pick had therefore taken what could have been an entirely mundane function of a city it’s underground railway and turned it into (literally in many cases) a vehicle for modern and modernist art in poster design initially but later in architecture. Pick hired fellow DIA member Charles Holden in 1924 and promptly commissioned him to design the stations of the southern Morden extension of the Northern Line.

Tooting Bec 1952

Tooting Bec. Photographed by Colin Tait, September 1952. (Tooting Bec Underground station, Wandsworth SW17. Image no: 3816. Inventory no: 1998/87060. © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)

Tooting Bec 1975

Tooting Bec. Photographed by R S Watson, Oct 1975  (Tooting Bec, SW17. Image no: unknown. Inventory no: 2007/7930.  © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)

Tooting Bec 1980

Tooting Bec. Unknown photographer, Circa 1980. (Tooting Bec, SW17. Image no: unknown. Inventory no: 2001/16397. © TfL from the London Transport Museum collection)

Tooting Bec eastern entrance

Tooting Bec eastern entrance

Tooting Bec western entrance

Tooting Bec western entrance

Holden developed a simple, functionalist design, austerely classical.”[9] Holden is however perhaps better known for his designs for the northern Cockfosters extension of the Piccadilly Line in the 1930s.

Cockfosters station building

Cockfosters station building

 Cockfosters interior

Cockfosters interior

“Pick now began to lecture on the necessity for town planning,… Pick cited the ideas of Raymond Unwin and Patrick Geddes, two influential leaders in the town-planning movement. Unwin and Geddes themselves were influenced by Ruskin and Morris and argued that town planning must be organic,… This conception cohered with Pick’s own romantic belief in the possible reconciliation of diversity within a totality, and his hope that an organic unfolding society could coexist with the modern necessity for urban planning”[10]

More on the suburbs that emerged from the expansion of the Underground and the station and architecture of the 1930s on another day.

[1] p61, Saler, M. T. (1999) The avant-garde in interwar England : medieval modernism and the London Underground. New York ; Oxford : Oxford University Press.

[2] p93, Saler (1999) Op cit.

[3] Morris, William (1882) Hopes and Fears for Art, London : Ellis & White.

[4] Morris, William. Hopes and Fears for Art; Chapter 3, “The Beauty of Life”. [Online] Accessed 05/08/2010  [url:]

[5] p106, Saler (1999) Op cit.

[6] pp99-100, Saler (1999) Op cit.

[7] p100, Saler (1999) Op cit.

[8] p101,  Saler (1999) Op cit.

[9] p105,  Saler (1999) Op cit.

[10] p107,  Saler (1999) Op cit.


About Michael Coates

Michael is a Principal Lecturer for Contextual Studies at the Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University, and a PhD student in architecture history at the Univeristy of Sheffield.

One comment

  1. Angela Reid

    My paternal grandfather, Henry Louis Thompson b 1889 in Kilburn, was foreman to the building of the Northern Line from Tooting to Morden.
    Due to the tunneling, there was a lot of flooding. The water had to be pumped out. He and the men stayed underground for days quite often, sleeping in turns on the original 18 inch wide benches, so they could be there to pump out the water to prevent complete flooding.

    Even after the line was built, much of Morden was still farms, fields, small holdings and orchards. My now late father (b. 1920 in Tooting Bec) and his friends used to go apple scrumping in the Morden orchards when they were kids. Once, the farmer and his dog chased them. All but one ran and got away. One climbed a tree and the farmer and his dog just stayed underneath. The dog barking at him and the farmer striking him with his cane whenever the lad tried to climb down. Apparently this went on a long time. In the end the farmer let him get down and gave him a thick ear to teach him a lesson. He learnt – not to climb up and get stuck but to run instead. Lol.

    Now, the ex-GLC council houses are built on what were those rural lands 😦

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