Art on the Underground - online essay
London Transport fare increases in the 1980s resulted in a drop in passenger numbers. This greatly affected demand for advertising space on the Underground.
If a poster site was not used, it was covered in black paper or sometimes old posters were left to grow tired and torn. This cast a depressing shadow over both LT’s passenger environment and their reputation as a leading patron of poster publicity. Dr Henry Fitzhugh was London Underground's Marketing and Development Director at the time. It was his job to build up passenger numbers and to address the issue of passenger environment.
Unable to force companies to use the empty advertising space, Fitzhugh introduced a new poster commissioning initiative, Art on the Underground. Six posters were to be commissioned each year; two ‘easy subjects’, two avant-garde works and two somewhere in between. Six thousand of each were printed and displayed for between seven months and a year.
Unlike publicity posters, the primary function of Art on the Underground posters was aesthetic. Fitzhugh commissioned leading artists of the day, including many Royal Academicians. As well as filling unused poster sites, the initiative acted as a valuable means of corporate art sponsorship. The campaign went some way to reviving the design ethos of Frank Pick, in its enlightened approach to the commercial application of art and commitment to enriching the passenger’s environment.
Fitzhugh left London Underground in the early 1990s and the art commissioning programme was taken over by Jeremy Rewse-Davies, LT’s Design Director. Within the tighter economic climate, London Transport Advertising became privatised.
Advertising space was sold more aggressively, leaving fewer gaps for Art on the Underground commissions. However, due to its popularity, Rewse-Davies retained space specifically for the campaign until 2000.