Art! on the Underground
In 1308 the Republic of Siena commissioned an artist, Duccio di Buoninsegna, to make a painting for the Cathedral’s high altar. Duccio! One of Siena’s most lauded sons! One of Italy’s greatest painters! He painted panels for the altarpiece in a studio on Via Stalloreggi. It took him and his assistants three years. The finished altarpiece — the Maestà — was five meters long and five meters high. Panels slotted into a golden grid crowned by towering golden spires. Depicting: scenes from the Passion, stories from all four gospels, the entry into Jerusalem, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, Christ in Glory. On the front: The Holy Virgin, patron saint of Siena. She is seated on a marble throne, wide and architectural, holding the Christ-child on her lap. In neat rows around Her and Him: angels saints and martyrs. St John the Evangelist, St John the Baptist, St Paul and his sword, St Catherine of Alexandria, St Peter, St Agnes, the apostles.
I am on the street in front of the artists’ studio on Via Stalloreggi. It is 9th June 1311. The workshops are closed and everything is quiet. Duccio and his assistants have just finished slotting the completed altarpiece together. A crowd has gathered. The artist is leading the altarpiece out into the street — strong men with big arms are carrying it like a flag. It is enormous, it is shining, it is beautiful. I am deep in the Middle Ages so images still hold the reverent aura of power, rarity, sanctity. The Blessed Virgin with her serene face, so beautiful and so otherworldly. We are all quiet in her presence, too busy looking and too humbled by devotion to murmur. The Bishop leads us, the art and the crowd, through the streets of our city. Me, Duccio, the priests and monks, the high officers of the Commune, the honourable citizens and good people of Siena. All of them, literally the whole city. We all have candles in our hands. People throw flowers from their balconies as we pass by, prayers too. They call for the Holy Mother of God, the Virgin Mary, to intercede and in her infinite mercy preserve her beloved city of Siena from every misfortune, every traitor or enemy. We march through it all on our way through the Piazza del Campo, up the stone steps and into the Cathedral—-
I am on the Victoria line. No, wait— yeah yeah yeah, I’m on the Victoria line. It is a Monday morning in London, 30th October 2023. I am not in Medieval Siena. Of course not. I am on my way to work. The Victoria line is just so boiling hot that I am hallucinating. My North Face is cooking me like I’m a ready-meal, making me slip in and out of consciousness.
It’s funny though, isn’t it? Medieval Siena sounds nice. I want to live in the kind of society that parades art through the streets. I want art to be greeted by the citizens, by their hushed reverence, prayers and candlelight. Or their exultation, flowers thrown, rapture. For that society, what kind of role does art play in public life? What’s art’s public value? It must be very special, very known and understood, very welcome and communal and celebrated. I close my eyes again, scrunch them tight and imagine: today, put a Rothko on a stick and take to the streets. Imagine! Waving the big painting like a placard, like a protest, like I am trying to say THE END IS NIGH through the medium of non-figurative abstraction.
There’s a man sat across from me in the carriage. He has an austere side part, a beautifully tailored suit, his legs are crossed and he’s wearing polished black oxfords— he’s folding his newspaper under his arm, he’s leaning across to speak to me.
‘People never speak to each other on the tube, but I am compelled to tell you. My name is Frank Pick. I was Chief Executive of London Transport, the Underground to you and I, back in the 1930s. I did a law degree, I trained as a solicitor, but — when I joined the Underground back in 1906 the railways were commercially failing. We had six months to turn it around, and I took over the publicity. Almost every attraction in London was within reach of the Underground! It made no sense for the Underground to be failing! So I commissioned posters with images, pictures, art. Something to make people excited about the destinations on the other end. I commissioned artists and graphic designers who had radical, avante-garde practices. You name ‘em, I had ‘em on the hotline: Man Ray, Clive Gardiner, Paul Nash, Edward McKnight Kauffer. The cutting edge! Art Deco, Abstraction, Cubism, Vorticism, Surrealism, Futurism. By the 20s and 30s, designing an Underground poster was an honour for an artist to aspire to. The Underground was a noted patron of the arts. It might not have been Middle England’s cup of tea, but it got people’s attention. Anyway, London has always been ahead of the curve. Before the Tube was the Tube, it was run by different companies with different logos and different signage. I commissioned a calligrapher called Edward Johnston to design a new official typeface to make all the signs look consistent, coherent. They still use it today: Johnston100. And the roundel. That was me too.’
He points up at the UNDERGROUND logo, white lettering on a navy blue strip, cutting through the middle of a red ring.
‘It was a filled circle before, the hole in the middle was my idea. And the map! No one understood how all these different trains interconnected before we did that! You take it for granted that you change from Central to Bakerloo to Jubilee with nothing more than a glance down at your phone to check Citymapper. It used to be very confusing. And then the stations! In the 20s and 30s the Underground expanded as London spilled outwards — the Northern line and Piccadilly line extensions. I brought in an architect called Charles Holden for that.’
He points at me.
‘You grew up right next to one of his finest, didn’t you? Arnos Grove, a masterpiece of modern architecture. Grade II listed now, isn’t it?’ I nod. ‘Yes, the Guardian listed it as one of the twelve Great Modern Buildings. The ticket hall’s inspired by the Stockholm City Library, the Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund. Art is everything! Everywhere!’
Frank leaps to his feet. No one in the carriage looks up from their phones, their paperbacks, their free copies of the Metro. No one seems to even notice his outburst. He points at the seat he’s just leapt from.
‘The fabric that the seats are upholstered in, Moquette. I commissioned leading textile designers to produce designs just for us: Enid Marx, Marion Dorn and artists like Paul Nash. Now each line has its own pattern, if you look closely enough to see the details. Everywhere! Everything!’
His arms are spread wide, a gleam in his eyes from the fluorescent lights and his love of it all.
‘Don’t you want to feel some kind of identification with the spaces you relate to everyday? Isn’t that what the corporate entities that run this city call PLACEMAKING?? The City of London, so smooth and chrome, so impossible and untrue. But the Tube feels visually distinguishable against the background hum, against all that noise. It is Ours, or Yours, in a way. In that it is all for You. Or it was for You — all those decades of historical investment in making this space feel like more than just chrome and glass, more than just soulless urban infrastructure, rapid mass transit for a city that could be anywhere. Like more than just a liminal space between Home and the World. You see, I believed in the power of good design. It is good design that makes people feel —-‘
The tannoy announcement plays overhead, interrupting: THIS IS WALTHAMSTOW CENTRAL. CHANGE HERE FOR THE OVERGROUND AND THE WILLIAM MORRIS GALLERY. The doors slide open and I scarper.
I’m at the ticket gate sweating like a dog. There’s a guy manning it, wearing a hi-vis vest over a grey wool suit. He’s resting one elbow across the barrier, propping up his head and blocking my exit. I kiss my teeth but he doesn’t move.
‘Exit’s closed, darling. Maintenance work. Gonna be backed up all month, apologies for the disruption to your journey et cetera et cetera.’
I peer round him and see a crowd of workmen in the vestibule. They’re also in hi-vis vests, all hard at work and holding tiny paintbrushes. Halfway up ladders, and on their hands and knees. All carefully and meticulously painting the floor, the ceiling, the walls with their thin detail brushes. The painted area looks like an intricate design, floral, like an old ornate wallpaper. I can make out a repeating pattern: small brown birds, green leaves, little red strawberries with golden seeds studded across them, all juicy and bursting.
‘I know, nightmare. Don’t get me started. But… You know what, now I think about it…’ He glances over his shoulder, to check if the guys behind him are listening. I jostle closer so we’re only inches apart and whispering, my puffer jacket rustling between us like a boundary.
‘Why shouldn’t the Tube be beautiful? Why shouldn’t it feel like a nice space to be in? Couldn’t it be enriching? If you’re the ordinary working public, travelling to work and back every single day, don’t you deserve public transport that’s beautiful? Or at least more than just a blank slate shuttle service for you, the lowly worker. That was my whole thing, as you well know.’
He taps a finger on a name-badge pinned to his chest: WILLIAM MORRIS.
‘Call me Will— artist, designer, Victorian, father of the Arts and Craft movement, committed socialist. Everyone deserves spaces and surroundings of great beauty. Everyone deserves art. Of course, not everyone can afford art or great beauty. That’s why we should make beautiful things more ordinary, and ordinary things more beautiful. Our furnishings, our homes, our wallpapers, our cities and our surroundings.’
He points behind him at the guys up the ladder, the guys painting the floor.
‘I believe that beauty is a right, not a luxury. And it’s certainly not the preserve of a rare few, the rich. Art is not a thing to be kept in a cage. Art is not a secret to be jealously hoarded.’
The workmen were still painting, but I could hear them humming. Low and quiet, not looking up from their work.
‘No! I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few. I would rather art not exist at all! Rather than live a thin life, as the exclusive pleasure of a few rich men. Art should make our streets as beautiful as the woods, as elevating as the mountainsides. Art should be pleasure and rest for all, have a home in every house, touch every life. Man cannot live on bread alone, and man cannot live in a bare space without great beauty and art.’
The humming workmen were louder and now, in unison, they burst into song.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes— Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses.
‘EVERYONE WILL HAVE THEIR SHARE OF BEAUTY!’
I am back underground, I think? I don’t know anymore. I’m so late for work, it’s unbelievable. Somewhere at the interchange between the Central and Northern line — is this Tottenham Court Road? Yeah, it must be. Look at those tiles, that mosaic, the jazzy pattern. I’d recognise it anywhere, any time. Even as it passes by at high speed, out the carriage window. All red and green and blue and yellow. Crayon colours, square tiles, it feels like a bathroom and it feels like a swimming pool, private and public and garish. The crowd around me, shuffling and silent. An intrusive thought grabs me: Who has ever stopped to touch the station walls? I run my hand down the tiles, for the first time in my life. They are warm, like a body.
‘EDUARDO PAOLOZZI MADE ME!!!’ The tiles are vibrating, rearranging themselves, forming the shape of a face. A face with blushing red cheeks, a gaping mouth, navy blue.
‘In 1986. But even now, I am one of the most spectacular examples of public art in London. I span over 950 square meters, my tiles are made of glass. I am an image made in reference to the local area, but also I suppose I speak to Eduardo’s interest in mechanisation, urbanisation, popular culture and everyday life. All that being said, I am also just very beautiful.’
The tile face clears his throat. A handful of square glass tiles fly out, clattering against the floor.
‘Beg your pardon. But you know, I am not the only one. Have you seen the guys down in Charing Cross? Yeah, that great big black and white illustration that wraps the walls of the platform. It’s like a Medieval woodcut. David Gentleman did that in 1980. The illustration tells the story of how the cross — you know, the cross, Charing CROSS — was made. Apparently Edward the First built it for his wife, Eleanor of Castile. He loved her dearly and when she died, he built twelve of these Eleanor crosses — one for every place where her funeral procession stopped for the night on its way back to Westminster. This was way back in the 13th Century, Oliver Cromwell actually destroyed the original Charing Cross in 1647, so the one in the station forecourt is a Victorian reproduction. But the platform itself is a monument to Medieval love.’
Blue tiles ran down the face’s rosy red cheeks, like streams of tears.
‘Beautiful, beautiful. And then in 1984, Robyn Denny did those enamel panels at Embankment. They’re like ribbons, the colours of the tube lines, and they’re propped up vertically so it looks like they’re dancing. At least, they might seem to be dancing if you’re glancing at them from the window of a moving train. Apparently Robyn Denny took a look at the River Thames, broke the shape of its curves down into clipped lines. Drawing! You can draw with geographical entities, our blessed river! Turning it into a kind of geometric abstraction. Ah, that is what artists do. Ah, yes. Ah ah. Oi, have you been up there recently?’
I follow the gesture of the mosaic face’s raised tiled eyebrows. Up above ground? I have. Tottenham Court Road is an odd place to talk about public art. Just out the Elizabeth Line exit, there’s the billion pound Outernet entertainment ‘district’. A walless digital exhibition space, the world’s largest LED screen deployment — four storeys high. And a music venue about four stories underground, complete with an underlit and overpriced cocktail bar. Yeah — entertainment, culture, art, brought to you by property developers and venture capitalists.
‘I guess that’s less about art and more about advertising, isn’t it? That’s why we try and put all this art down here, to cut through the noise of those bloody ads. The whole point of putting art in these public spaces is that it’s not asking you for anything. On the viewer’s end, art isn’t asking you for money, a transaction, an outcome — it’s not buying or selling anything. At least, not to you. But that awful business up there, it reminds us that public art has to have something to it. A bit of grit, some backbone, a certain awareness or connectedness that property developers just seem fucking incapable of getting to grips with. It’s like Plop Art.’
‘Yeah, Plop Art. A term coined by this American architect called James Wines in 1970. It’s where you plop a piece of art down in a public place, oblivious to its surroundings, it just doesn’t bear any relationship to anything around it. You see it all the time round cities, don’t you? Those hulking soulless sculptures outside corporate buildings, in those private squares that look like public space but just definitively aren’t public space. The problem with Plop Art is that it has nothing to do with anything, not even aesthetics. You might like the look of it, but it just — it offers you nothing. It’s just mass. It’s filling space, and then it becomes invisible. People don’t even notice it, because there’s nothing to notice. James Wines called Plop Art a kind of turd in the plaza.’
The mosaic face is smirking at me.
‘People need art! Not just personally, but publicly. It acts as a kind of symbol for the psyche, for individuals, groups, government, society, public at large. For people to see themselves in but also for people to see just something, anything in. We are a species that love landmarks — whether they are hillsides, cliffs or towering wheels spinning next to our beautiful river. The city is dominated by symbols! All those statues of men on horses, all those conquering heroes. The Victorians and their noble bronzes, Churchill and the cenotaph and Nelson’s towering column. Who was it that said all sculpture was phallic? They must’ve had a look at Trafalgar Square, I reckon. But when I think about public art, I think about all those murals on the side of buildings. Well, maybe it’s because I’m a kind of mural myself, ha! Fading and peeling and figurative. We murals are so in our context: how and when we were made, where we are, the kind of people we were made for and by. We narrate it to you. If something is being monumentalised, I think it’s good to have an idea of what it actually is.’
A crowd of Spanish tourists jostle past, their backpacks all on backwards. Or forwards? I don’t know — they’re just wearing their backpacks on their fronts for some bizarre reason. Teenage tourists, wearing Adidas, Puma, Fila. They must be boiling too, in all that polyester. They sweep me up in their bulking swarm, carrying me away from the mosaic face, away from Eduardo’s masterpiece.
The tiles arrange themselves into a hand, it waves me farewell. I’d wave back but I am trapped in the collective polyester tourist body.
It’s too late to call my boss and pull a sicky. I don’t even know what day it is any more. I might as well forget my job, forget my old life. I am here on the tube, experiencing public art as I flash in and out of my fugue state. Still, I’d never take off my North Face. Would rather die than have to lug a great big puffer jacket round in my arms. Demoralising. Embarrassing. Almost as bad as having to wheel a suitcase round. God that kills me. I don’t even know what train I’m on, don’t even know where it’s going.
The voice on the tannoy blares out an announcement, a metallic hum. It’s so loud I can hear it through my AirPods. IF YOU SEE SOMETHING THAT DOESN’T LOOK RIGHT, SPEAK TO STAFF OR TEXT BRITISH TRANSPORT POLICE ON 61016. WE’LL SORT IT. SEE IT, SAY IT, SORTED.
I’ve never actually seen anything that didn’t look right. I’ve seen a wasted city boy in a full three-piece Moss Bros suit, fast asleep and pissing himself — the piss actually streaked down the length of the carriage as the train accelerated. I’ve shared a Bakerloo line train with a pigeon (does the Bakerloo line even go overground? How did that pigeon get in there in the first place?) I’ve seen a woman in a gilet eating beetroot salad from a massive plastic bucket (the bucket had a handle, and she’d slung it in the crook of her arm like a Michael Kors handbag). I’ve seen three teenagers try and squeeze an enormous, larger than life cardboard cutout of Kiera Knightley through the carriage’s double doors (it got stuck and the driver had a go at them over the tannoy). Somehow all of that just made sense. I’m not even phased by today’s run-ins. I just have to take it in my stride. Londoners are such strange people. I love them deeply and dearly, for their public and private oddities. Mostly the public ones.
Carriage noise, tunnel screeching. This train is so loud, it must be the Central line. The train is grinding to a halt. The tannoy is crunching again. This time, the driver. HELLO LADIES AND GENTS, THIS IS YOUR DRIVER SPEAKING. WE’RE JUST STUCK IN A TUNNEL AT A RED SIGNAL, BUT WE WILL BE ON THE MOVE SHORTLY. APOLOGIES FOR THE DELAY TO YOUR JOURNEY— Scuffling noises, feedback whines. HELLO YOU LOT — it’s a new voice? This one is snarling — THIS IS JOE STRUMMER, FROM THE CLASH — I thought he was dead?
Staccato guitar, rumbling drums, all falling into rhythm. Then a voice yowls, LONDON CALLING TO THE FARAWAY TOWNS—— you know the rest don’t you? LONDON IS DROWNING AHHHHHHHH LIVE BY THE RIVER—- The door at the other end of the carriage swings open with a bang, Joe Strummer (not dead, or maybe just come back to life) is kicking it closed, marching over to me in his drainpipes and Derby boots. He is cradling a stack of tube maps in his arms like a precious baby.
‘I am a musician and Socialist, a man of many talents. But here in the afterlife, I work as a curator. How’s that for purgatory, eh?’
He has thrown himself into the seat next to me. Now he is whispering in my ear.
‘I do wonder… have you ever noticed the art down here?’
Joe, mate. No offence, the art down here has been holding me hostage all day. Can’t help but fucking notice it.
‘No no, not that. I mean the contemporary Art — Art on the Underground? I only ask because that’s where I work now. It’s an interesting old job. You must’ve seen it about. There are posters on every platform. It’s TfL’s contemporary art commissioning program, been running for twenty odd years now. We do some permanent works but most of it is temporary and it changes round all the time. There’s 272 stations, we could do something in any of them. There’s the disused platform at Gloucester Road, the Brixton murals, the tube map covers, a couple permanent works across the tube network too —’
I’ve seen Larry Achiampong’s Pan-African flag roundel in Westminster. Heather Phillipson’s eggs at Gloucester Road. Barby Asante’s Declaration of Independence, sung aloud by a choir on the concourse at Stratford. Shenece Oretha’s Route Words plays on the tannoy at Finsbury Park sometimes, if I’m lucky I catch it on my way to the gym. Assemble and Matthew Raw made the tiles for the little coffee kiosk outside Seven Sisters. And I remember Linder’s billboards down the Cut just outside Southwark, but I didn’t realise that was art?
‘Oh, we get that a lot. But I quite like it! I don’t think it matters too much whether people know and recognise that it’s art they’re looking at, you know what I mean? The art being treated like art is actually pretty circumstantial. In a gallery, people know what they’re signing up for. They come ready and primed to See Some Art, and they’re probably literate in how they’re meant to go about doing that. They come in, very humble and quiet and reverent. On the tube, there’s none of that. You just have to kind of assess the vibe of whatever you’re looking at on the fly, very fucking quickly. Because you’re off at the next stop. None of those pretensions. But it’s good! I did a stint in a gallery before this, and the difference is… Let me put it this way. With art in a gallery, you’ve got the benefit of a pre-existing audience. You’re essentially just catering to them. Even if you do all the outreach to try expand beyond them, it’s the same couple thousand people who come see the shows. Five million people travel every day in London. When you think about the tube as a space for potential viewers, you’re thinking in the millions. What can art do when it’s cutting about in the wider world?’
A mental image of all the paintings in the National Gallery growing arms and legs, springing off the walls and running out the building in different directions. All the paintings with their little legs, escaping to freedom, off on an adventure.
‘I mean, there’s no getting away from it. The tube just is a weird liminal space, it’s transitory. Not public, not private, not really governmental, not really about The State, even though it’s publicly funded. It sits between all these different categories, defies space itself because it sprawls across the entire city. It’s not like the fourth plinth over in Trafalgar Square — that’s this seat of state power, memorialising wars and commanders and it’s also a space for protest and tourists. The tube is really a perfect place to put art. Not just as decoration — I mean, god bless Frank Pick and William Morris, because decoration and vibe-setting is important too. And not necessarily as a useful or teleological thing either — like Tania Bruguera’s Art Útil and that whole thing about using artistic thinking as a tactic to change society — that’s very easily co-opted by the state and its interests. But as actual conceptual art, proper art, capital A ART. What does that do?’
It could be nice if art was everywhere in public. Behind every closed door and round every corner. If every empty shopfront was turned round and put to use as black box theatres. If every middle carriage was actually a travelling live music venue. Chewing gum jammed into bridge walkways could be turned into little canvases. Sculptures in fountains. Paintings down the side of buildings. Oh.
‘It’s a weird one. We don’t know what the actual effect (or affect?) of art is. We don’t really have a way to quantify what art does, beyond evaluation reporting for funding applications. We’re not really thinking about where public value sits and what public value actually feels like. What does art do to people when it’s out there in the world? I have no clue — like, not really. If you asked me to define public value for someone who had never heard of it before, for an alien like, I wouldn’t know what to tell them.’
Joe Strummer hands me one of the tube maps he’s carting about. ‘Get a load of that one. Sharon Hayes did the cover, inspired by protest banners and newspaper cutouts. Says COME OUT COME OUT, but backwards, so it looks like the back of a banner you’re holding. Nice, isn’t it?’
I nod, yeah yeah.
From 1287 to 1355 the Republic of Siena entered a Golden Age, ruled over by a merchant-banking oligarchy called the Noveschi. They had money coming out of their ears, so they spent some of it commissioning new buildings: The Cathedral, the Palazzo Publico, the city walls. Then they spent some more of it commissioning art to put in these new buildings. The cathedral is the Cathedral, home to works by Donatello, Bernini, Michelangelo, mosaics from Venice, pulpits made of Carrara marble. Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi produced a true masterpiece of Gothic painting: the Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus — specifically for the cathedral’s side altar. But the Palazzo Publico was the seat of civil government. On the North wall of the Sala del Consiglio, Simone Martini was commissioned to paint his own Maestà. And in the Sala dei Nove, the council hall where the nine magistrates of the Noveschi would carry out their business, there’s Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s masterpiece: The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. Six different scenes across three of the room’s walls, it depicts the effects of — literally the title of the fresco, it’s all very self-explanatory. It’s civic art, commissioned by a city council, with a civic subject matter rather than a religious one. I wonder, did the Noveschi ever look up from their judicial workload and gaze longingly or critically at Lorenzetti’s peaceful city? Did they ever refer to it when making governmental decisions, or was it the subject of small talk, or did it just sit in the background like a chronic hum they largely tried to ignore. They were deep in the Middle Ages, images still held the reverent aura of power, rarity, sanctity. I wonder how they conceptualised public value.
Joe Strummer is not dead, he is scratching his chin in the seat next to me.
‘Anyway, listen. Nice to chat to you and all, but I’ve gotta get a shift on. Whole tube full of people, gotta give these out before I can call it a day. I’ll catch you in a bit, ey?’
He winks, shifts the stack of maps back into his arms and marches off down the end of the carriage. The door swings shut behind him. The song over the tannoy has changed. Now it’s playing Guns of Brixton — oh! I’m back on the Victoria line.
ALSO! on the subject of art x public transport: Banner Repeater is an artist-led contemporary art space & artists' publishing archive, they’re based on platform 1 at Hackney Downs station – at the moment they’re doing some fundraising to cover running costs & repairs. You can buy an artist print, here’s one of mine actually from back when i was an artist!!! – very limited edition and rare! because the un-Publish project I did with them was my last project as an artist! If that’s not ur bag, there are other prints available on their online shop. And if you’d rather just sling over a cute fiver and call it a day, they’re taking donations on Open Collective. B/R are a non-profit and do some really cool work, & small orgs do not receive nearly as much public funding as they should! so thank you in advance for helping to support artist-led publishing!
& not to sound like a broken record, but Israel continues to commit horrific acts of violence and genocide against the Palestinian people, Gaza is still under blockade and potentially facing a ground invasion.