Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Poster Girls, the London Transport Museum exhibit, recalls a London where female artists were quietly shaping the way the city saw itself, its pleasures, and its future.
With their mix of Modernist experimentation and now bygone charm, London Underground’s 20th century publicity posters have long been popular in Britain. What is less well-known, however, is just how central a role women artists played in their creation.
Since 1910, at least 170 known female artists have been commissioned to make work for London’s public transit network, creating instantly recognizable images in near anonymity. Over the past year, an exhibition at the London Transport Museum, entitled Poster Girls, has been highlighting this unsung contribution to the British capital’s visual identity. Due to close this Sunday, visitors have a last chance to view what is both a document of social change and a treasure trove of invention.
The important role of women artists in creating London Underground’s posters is probably no coincidence. While the network’s first line opened in 1863, London Underground’s expansion into a genuine citywide network began in the years following 1900—around the same time that women first started graduating from British art academies in substantial numbers. Frequently dismissed in a period where women’s relative lack of visual creativity was taken by received opinion as almost a given, this new generation of women artists often found it easier to gain a living in commercial areas.
Women may have also gained more acceptance in advertising because the industry was itself turning more and more towards the promotion of female consumption. London Underground chief Frank Pick apparently had a more enlightened attitude to female workers than most of his contemporaries that allowed them to thrive as poster designers. However, his organization still paid its female designers less than male counterparts.
Judging by the arresting images in the Poster Girls exhibition, these artists were definitely shortchanged. Focusing on commercial work may have been frustrating for artists such as Laura Night, for example, who developed a career as a respected fine artist. But this pressure meant the public got work like her brilliantly moody 1921 poster promoting streetcar travel to London Rugby. Just after World War I, London was a relatively conservative European city where the supposedly avant-garde Bloomsbury Group were still raving about Cézanne. Such a raw, stark image must have looked arresting at the time.
Other posters in the exhibition hint at their female authorship by presenting activities conventionally deemed both feminine and trivial—such as shopping and dancing—with more gravitas than you might expect. There’s something almost heroic about the towering silhouette and stoic facial expression of Dora Batty’s suburban shopper—suggesting a fortitude the woman will need if she does indeed intend to commute home carrying three parcels and an umbrella.
The importance of posters on the Underground started to wane in the late 20th century, as television and magazines grew as competing sites for advertising. Accordingly, it’s perhaps the exhibition’s interwar posters that are most arresting. They may recall a London in which women were only just gaining equal voting rights (in 1928), but they also reveal a place where female artists were quietly shaping the way the city saw itself, its pleasures, and its future.