Midcentury Seven Sisters Victoria line tiles designed by Hans Unger 1968

Going Underground: confessions of a Tile spotter!

Hello, my name is Cathy and I am a London Transport design geek!  But having grown up with it’s influence and inspiration all around me, I think it was inevitable.

From the eye-catching posters to it’s famous roundel symbol and Harry Beck’s iconic tube map,  London Transport has brought art and designs into the daily lives of millions of Londoners and has had a huge influence on the visual identity of our city.  But as there are far too many examples of great design to cover in just one post,  today I will just be concentrating on the Victoria line and it’s tiles.

When the Victoria line started running 1968, it was the first entirely new tube line in London for fifty years.  Designed to ease congestion on the other lines, it is now the most intensely used line on the network.  The deep level tunnels run entirely underground, in a semicircle from Walthamstow Central in the North East to Brixton in the South West.   Alternative names considered for this line were the Walvic line (Walthamstow/Victoria) or the Viking line (Victoria/Kings Cross)

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Oxford Circus Victoria Line Tiles, designed by Hans Unger

If you travel on the Victoria line you may have noticed the distinctive tiles that decorate the recessed seating areas on every platforms.   I don’t know when I first became aware of the tiles on the Victoria line, but I think it was probably the modernist circle and dot design at Oxford Circus that first caught my eye.   These tiles had been replaced with a Snakes and Ladder pattern in 1984, but were restored to the original design in 2008, which is probably when when I spotted these tiles for the first time (as an adult).  I love the simplicity of this mid century design, a crisp white circle (circus) crossed with pale blue, red and brown dots, showing the different lines that interchange at this station (Victoria, Central and Bakerloo).

When I moved to North London 7 seven years ago, Oxford Circus became the main interchange on my daily commute and I also started visiting new stops on the Victoria line and began to notice that each station had it’s own unique design.   I became curious about the artists and designers who had created these images and enjoyed trying to work out what the various motifs were meant to represent.

Luckily,  I am not the only person to have been intrigued by these tiles and in 2013 graphic designer Maxwell Harrison produced a fabulous website dedicated to the Victoria Line Tiles

But now that I knew who the artists were, I was keen to learn more about them and see some of their other work.  I have highlighted three of my favourite designers below:

Hans Unger

The most prolific of the Victoria line tile designers was Hans Unger (1915-1975), who produced 5 of the 16 designs, including the Oxford Circus artwork discussed above.     Before starting this project I didn’t know anything about Hans Unger, so I was very happy to find this article by Naomi Games to fill me in on his life and work  (Naomi Games is, incidentally, the daughter of Abram Games below).

All of Hans Unger’s Victoria line artworks share a graphic simplicity, yet have playful/clever concept at their core; from the simple black horse of Blackhorse Road to the visual pun of Brixton’s ton of Bricks.  He doesn’t over complicate things, there is nothing unnecessary in any of these designs.   His tiles for Seven Sisters are a wonderful example of pared-down Mid Century design,  a circular spotty tree is repeated seven times, representing the seven elm trees that give the area it’s name. It is quite Scandinavian in style and I could imagine it as a Marimekko print.   Spotty trees also feature in the design for Green Park, but this time we see them from above with a bird’s eye view.

 

 Abram Games

Another favourite of mine is the abstract Swan made up of blue and white diagonal lines at Stockwell station.  It was designed by ‘Official War Poster Artist’ Abram Games (1914-1996), who is also well know for designing the symbol for the 1951 Festival of Britain.  The Swan is a reference to the popular Irish pub opposite the station, a place that I fondly remember spending many a merry hour in my late teens!

Stockwell Station Victoria line Tiles, Mid century Swan designed by Abram Games
Stockwell Station Tiles designed by Abram Games

Tom Eckersley

Tom Eckersley (1914-1997), British poster designer and teacher of design, was behind three of the platform artworks, and also created the poster campaign to advertise the new Victoria line in 1969.   As a long time fan of Mid Century posters, I have discovered that I am already quite familiar with the work of Tom Eckersley, as he created many iconic travel posters as well as adverts for Gillette, Seven Seas, Guinness, The Post Office and London Transport.

His design for Euston is a picture of the doric arch which originally stood at the entrance to the station, while King’s Cross is simply a cross made out of crowns.   The two dueling pistols at Finsbury Park station are a reference to the duels which were said to have taken place in the park in the 18th Century (although it is now believed that these duels actually took place in Finsbury Fields which is 3 miles south of here)

Victoria line poster design by Tom Eckersley, 1969 (from the book Frank Pick's London by Oliver Green)
Victoria line poster designed by Tom Eckersley, 1969 (from the book Frank Pick’s London by Oliver Green)

The remaining stations on the Victoria line

Artist and Illustrator Edward Bawden (1903-1989)  also created three of the designs; at Highbury & Islington he depicts the manor/castle (destroyed in the peasants revolt of 1381) that Highbury takes it’s name from.  A ferry crossing over the river Lea is the image for Tottenham Hale and a there is cameo style silhouette of Queen Victoria at Victoria station, of course.

The Warren Street tiles are the only ones that are credited to more than one person.   Created by the design partnership Crosby/Fletcher/Forbes, it features a bold red, black and white maze (or Warren if you like).

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Warren Street Tiles designed by Crosby/Fetcher/Forbes

The yellow dots at Pimlico station were created by Peter Sedgley (born 1930), Op-artist and contemporary of Bridget Riley, to represent the Tate Britain which is a short walk from this station.

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Pimlico tiles designed by Peter Sedgely

And finally, the Vauxhall tiles designed by George Smith, depict the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, while the ones at Walthamstow Central are based on a Willliam Morris pattern in reference to the nearby William Morris Gallery and were designed by Julia Black.

Vauxhall Victoria line tiles designed by George Smith, Vauxhall pleasure gardens
Vauxhall tiles designed by George Smith
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Walthamstow tiles designed by Julia Black

 

The Victoria line is one of the shortest tube lines on the network, so if there are any budding tile spotters out there who want to see all of the artworks listed above, it will only take you 32 minutes to get from one end of the line to the other.  And if you are not traveling in rush hour (which I wouldn’t recommend anyway!) you might even be able to see them all from the comfort of your seat.

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Brixton tube station at the start or end of your journey

Further Reading and places to explore:

For those who are keen to learn more about the design elements of the London Underground, I highly recommend a visit to the new permanent design gallery on the ground floor of the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.  The museum is currently in the middle of an 18 month programme of exhibitions & events,  Transported by Design, which explore how the transport system has shaped London and highlight the ways that good design has made life in the Capital better.  I’m particularly looking forward to a couple of up coming talks about Edward Johnston and the iconic font that he created.

There are also loads of great books available on the subject, including:

Frank Pick’s London: Art, Design and the Modern City by Oliver Green

London Underground by Design by Mark Ovenden

 

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3 thoughts on “Going Underground: confessions of a Tile spotter!

  1. Great post. I really find it hard for people to go into detail about the art of the underground or the history too. I hope to see more of your fanatstic posts.

    Like

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