TThe title of his book might suggest a date London Underground map of 1933 (which is technically a schematic diagram), the schema created by Harry Beck They are similar to electrical circuits. But it’s really the history of London Underground maps in the plural, albeit Beck is the star of the show. After all, there were underground maps in front of him, and there have been others since then, because the original game-changer had been tampered with so much. Caroline Robb’s lucid and meticulously researched study can also be read as a history of the London Underground in its own right. In other words, it puts Harry Peck in the fullest possible context – a well-deserved honor.
Beck provided a brilliantly understandable map of an unordered city. It shows a city of railways that are only horizontal, vertical or diagonal. For greater clarity, he zoomed in amid the chaos and reduced the sprawling suburbs, so, as Robb wrote, “Uxbridge was as close to Hillingdon as Leicester Square was to Covent Garden.”
In their first schemes, companies that became London Underground They imposed their lines on a “base map” showing local streets. But realistic geography faded when the lines promoted their concept of themselves. For example, on maps of Metroland, the suburb created by the Metropolitan Railroad, golf clubs loomed disproportionately.
The Head of the Conceptualiser was Frank Beck, the de facto head of design at London Underground Electric Railways and its successor, London Underground. As Robb identifies, Beck was a contradiction. On the plus side, his “genuine utopian drive and desire to improve civic space” coexisted with a series of gentle archaeological whims, hence tasking him with a decorative map proclaiming Edgware a “wonderful and enjoyable escape from the hustle and bustle of your city”. But he also had some potentially grim watchwords, such as “efficiency,” “function,” and “modernity,” which gave rise to the Johnston typeface, which could be read from ever faster trains, and pushed more people to modern stations poised to get the best performance. Passenger flow. Robb evokes George Orwell, who saw the tube as “the ultimate symbol of bureaucratic control,” because it encouraged mobility, “an essential cog in the machinery of capitalist society.”
Choose the delegated Peak map, which served this machine and possibly trapped people in a commuting lifestyle by making the suburbs appear closer… and who knows how many commuters it brought to London from the counties? But it seems that Beck is innocent on the outside. This “honest and gentle man” was kept intermittently by UERL as a technical illustrator, and his job status was ambiguous when he handed over the map, earning 10 pounds (about £800 in modern money). Beck thought he was the “rightful guardian” of the map, but others had different ideas, including Harold F. Hutchison, the publicity officer for London Transport, who redrawn it in 1960 and signed it in his name. Beck’s “beveled corners” became “sharp corners,” and “the biggest farce ever,” Aldgate was cut in half, “so that ‘Ald’ appears on one side of the road line and ‘Gate’ on the other.” Hutchison’s innovations were quickly reversed, and in the 1970s, when the LU was “managed” amid increasing automobile use, Beck’s map appeared to be a guarantor of the system’s essential virtue. He died in 1974, three years before the first shirt bearing the design appeared.
London’s public transport has rebounded in recent decades, but the Jubilee Line, the Overground Line and the Elizabeth Line have overshadowed the map. Roope interviews some cartographers who suggest alternatives to illustrating Beck, but as you write, they’ll have to do more than just provide a “navigational tool.” To match Beck’s map – the original drawing found at V&A – their map must also be pretty.
Andrew Martin’s latest book is Yorkshire: There and back