Underground to Arcadia: London Transport Posters 1908–1914

Alfred France, Hermes for speed, Eros for pleasure (1912), poster, 63.5 x 101.6 cm. Printed by Johnson, Riddle & Company Ltd, London. Published by Underground Electric Railways Company Ltd, London. ©TfL from the London Transport Museum collection.

Alfred France, Hermes for speed, Eros for pleasure (1912), poster, 63.5 x 101.6 cm. Printed by Johnson, Riddle & Company Ltd, London. Published by Underground Electric Railways Company Ltd, London. ©TfL from the London Transport Museum collection.

In 1908, the six-year-old Underground Electric Railways of London, later known as London Transport,1 began a pictorial poster campaign under the direction of Frank Pick (1874–1941).2 Previously, the Underground’s posters had been text-only and purely informational. Pick sought not only to increase ridership, but also to create a visual identity for the Underground and to improve the aesthetic experience of its customers.

While it had been standard practice to commission poster designs from printing firms that employed commercial artists, Pick also selected and hired artists directly, some  well-known and some untested, initiating the Underground’s long and storied history as a patron of the arts.3 In the years before the start of World War I, artists such as Arthur Blunt, Sidney Thomas Charles Weeks, John Henry Lloyd and, most notably, Charles Sharland promoted a vision of the Underground as a path to the Arcadia along the Thames and at the edges of the city.

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  1. The Underground Electric Railways of London Ltd (UERL), not only included subways and aboveground rail systems but trams and buses. In 1933, it became known as London Transport. []
  2. Pick joined the UERL in 1906 as an assistant to the chairman and was put in charge of publicity the following year. By 1912 he was commercial manager and in 1928 he became managing director. In 1933 he became vice chairman and chief executive. []
  3. There are several good sources for information about the history of Underground posters, including David Bownes and Oliver Green, London Transport Posters a Century of Art and Design (London: Lund Humphries in association with London Transport Museum, 2008), and Oliver Green, Art for the London Underground (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1990). []