London Underground Maps: Art, Design and Cartography by Claire Dobbin, and: Mind the Map: Inspiring Art, Design and Cartography (review)

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Claire Dobbin’s volume is a handsome hardback that provides a useful historical survey of mappings of the London Underground network from its haphazard beginnings to the present day. It also considers the more recent cultural life of the Tube map as an established icon of urban design, and is lavishly illustrated and printed on good-quality, foot-square paper. Yet how much do we really need another one of these books? In the past 20 years, enthusiasts of London Underground maps have been well served by a spate of similar volumes, which have all managed to combine impressive levels of scholarship with production values high enough to make an excellent Christmas present. In the early 1990s, Capital Transport published Ken Garland’s history of Mr Beck’s Underground Map (Garland 1994), which it soon bookended with No Need to Ask! Early Maps of London’s Underground Railways (Leboff and Demuth 1999) and Underground Maps after Beck by Maxwell J. Roberts (2005). Last year, this trilogy was supplemented by Roberts’ (2012) self-published Underground Maps Unravelled , an extensive exploration of Tube-map design through the psychological lens of informational perception. The target audience for Dobbin’s book might well be forgiven for thinking that they’ve read it all before. Yet while London Underground Maps surely covers a lot of familiar ground, it also contains much of real value. Its publication coincided with an exhibition entitled Mind the Map: Inspiring Art, Design and Cartography , which ran last summer at the London Transport Museum and for which the book provides an approximate catalogue. That exhibition had the slightly self-satisfied air that one might expect from the museum’s Olympics show, which also creeps in to frame the present volume. Its foreword is written by Peter Barber, Head of Map Collections at the British Library, in a bid to give these ephemeral maps the required establishment gravitas . It begins by asserting, rather glibly, that “London is a world leader in public transport mapping” and that Harry Beck’s design – the “apogee” of this mapping – is now “a cultural icon, a commercial amenity and an artistic source” (p. 6). Yet Dobbin’s book transcends these platitudes to deliver both new historical insights and a refreshing, self-reflexive account of the thriving Tube-map heritage industry. London Underground Maps has three sections, whose sequence mirrors the rooms at Mind the Map . The first and possibly the most useful section explores a series of maps produced during the first half of the twentieth century by MacDonald Gill, the younger brother of the more celebrated Eric and a much-neglected figure within British visual culture. In 1914, Frank Pick commissioned Gill to produce an elaborate decorative map of central London to be posted on station platforms. “The Wonder-ground Map of London Town,” as it was later known, had little utility as a navigational aid; its envisaged purpose was to generate publicity for the Underground Group by presenting passengers with a labyrinthine image full of historical incidents and humorous diversions. Viewers, it was hoped, would see this depiction of a curious, idiosyncratic city and resolve to spend more time exploring its terrain, thus delivering much-needed revenue during slacker, off-peak periods. The map was joyously received by the press (unlike Beck’s now more famous design, whose arrival wasn’t even noticed), leading to further commissions for Gill around such themes as London’s “Theatre-land” and its summertime amenities. Crammed with theatrical vignettes, corny puns, and private in-jokes, Gill’s highly popular maps established decorative cartography as a valid marketing device for soliciting journeys to underexplored areas. By the end of the 1920s, such designs were being cynically deployed to sell new Underground suburbs like Edgware and Morden, their maps suggesting that if one were to travel there, one might discover an unsullied, rural idyll. Gill’s prodigious output is just beginning to be re-evaluated and given the attention it deserves. In 2011, an exhibition at the University of Brighton brought these Underground maps together with others he drew for the Empire Marketing Board and Cunard, but, sadly, no catalogue was produced for that show. In the absence of a monograph...

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