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Everyone’s Art Gallery: Posters of the London Underground

In 1919, 39 posters came to the Art Institute of Chicago, courtesy of the Underground Electric Railways London. The posters, full of brilliant colors and innovative designs, were part of an effort to encourage Londoners to use this commercial transportation system: to visit the city’s cultural attractions, go shopping, attend sporting events, and even venture into the countryside—all by taking Underground trains and buses, of course. Installed outside Underground stations on public streets and on the front of buses that traversed the city, these posters formed a vibrant civic art presence—a public gallery available to all.

Over the next 20 years more posters arrived at the museum, coming at irregular intervals and eventually forming a collection of almost 350 artworks—an extraordinary sample from the golden age of this remarkable poster campaign, one that continues to this day. Until now, however, the story of how and why these posters came to Chicago has not been known. The architect of the poster campaign, from its inception in 1908 until 1939, was Frank Pick, an executive with London’s Underground. Pick’s enthusiasm for art education led him to commission poster designs from many young artists. Indeed, it is likely that the close relationship between the Art Institute of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute was one reason that Pick chose the museum as the eventual keeper of this poster archive.

This exhibition, the first at the museum to showcase this unique collection, begins with a chronological sampling of the posters. Thematic sections feature popular subjects, such as the zoo, museums, and Hampton Court, the royal palace southwest of London on the Thames, while focused displays are devoted to three of the greatest artists who worked for the Underground: Charles Paine, Frederick Herrick, and one of the most illustrious poster artists of the 20th century, Edward McKnight Kauffer, who studied briefly at the School of the Art Institute on his way to Europe.

Among the show’s highlights is Charles Paine’s clever take on King Henry the VIII, depicting him with large shears trimming the heads off his topiary queens in Hampton Court by Tram (1922). Others include Mary Koop’s Summer Sales (1925), which invites viewers to follow a riot of brightly colored umbrellas toward their shopping destination; a modernist depiction of time by Clive Gardiner from 1928 urging riders to buy a season Underground ticket; and Harold Sandys Williamson’s Cheap Tickets to Town, Shop between 10 and 4 (1939), an almost surrealistic view of the London cityscape, its sky a sea of floating barrage balloons as protection from German bombs.

A century after the initial posters arrived at the museum, this exhibition features 100 posters—a celebration of the gift, Frank Pick’s inventive campaign, and the beautiful artworks it produced.
Relevant research areas: Western Europe, 20th Century, Lithography

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