Eduardo Paolozzi: Underground Artist

I wish I liked Eduardo Paolozzi’s transport artworks more than I actually do. But here’s the thing. As I keep explaining to people (see this on one transport minister’s bizarre opinions on transport architecture), just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s worthless. There will be plenty of people who think it’s great. Such is the case with Paolozzi’s transport art, which is much admired by his aficianados. Many of them made that admiration known when one of those works was threatened. So what was all the fuss about?

Paolozzi mural at Tottenham Court Road station. This was originally at the Oxford Street entrance to the station but was moved and restored as part of Crossrail-related works. Photo by Roger Marks [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Paolozzi (1924-2005) is often referred to as one of the founders of the Pop Art movement. He didn’t really like to be credited in this way though, which only goes to show that you never can tell how history will judge you. He called himself a surrealist, which he certainly was, but Paolozzi secured his place in the artistic pantheon as a Pop Art pioneer thanks to a series of collages he produced in the late 1940s, made of cuttings from magazines, science books and pulp fiction book covers.

I’d like to be able to give you a concise summing up of what Pop Art is, but the more I read about it the more confused I get. I think it’s fair to say it was essentially a graphical medium. Collages of the sort that Paolozzi pioneered, and which were later produced by artists like Richard Hamilton, were one of its chief manifestations. The cover of The Beatles’s Sergeant Pepper album is a classic of Pop Art in this vein. But Pop Art also covers comic strip-style paintings like those produced by Roy Lichtenstein – “Whaam!” in particular is one you’ll probably be familiar with.

Paolozzi, meanwhile, went on to produce prints and sculptures which contained fragments of machine parts and ‘rubbish’, giving the impression of disintegrated robotics. For those whose interests are primarily in the field of transport, however, Paolozzi will be most familiar from an artwork in a medium he otherwise used relatively little, the giant mosaic murals at London Underground’s Tottenham Court Road station.

Part of Paolozzi’s murals at Tottenham Court Road in 2014, before restoration. The poor condition of the mural is quite evident. © Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this geograph page

Pop Art also crosses over into Psychedelic Art, and I think my lack of appreciation for the Tottenham Court Road murals stems from, of all things, their (vague, I know) resemblance to the Pschydelic Art of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film (dir. George Dunning, 1968). I watched it as a child and found, and still find, the Blue Meanies to be utterly creepy. There’s something about Paolozzi’s Tottenham Court Road murals that reminds me of Yellow Submarine‘s graphical style and I think that’s why they’re just not for me.

The Tottenham Court Road murals were commissioned by London Transport in 1980, at a late stage in Paolozzi’s career. By this time he had made a name for himself in the contemporary art world and had won commissions not just from London Transport but from other large companies or public bodies too. He produced sculptures for the British Library and Royal Bank of Scotland, as well as another set of mosaic murals, this time for the Redditch Development Corporation.

The Tottenham Court Road murals were completed in 1984, four years after they were commissioned; great art takes time. They can be found stretching along large parts of the rear walls of the platforms on both the Central and Northern lines at the station, in places along interconnecting passageways, and originally also in and around the ticket office area. Art and culture website describes Paolozzi’s work thus: “He drew on motifs familiar from his earlier work: vast, colourful cogwheels, butterflies, slabs of abstract electronics, voodoo masks and heroic comic-book figures. He also included other reminders of life above ground: saxophones and cameras, fast food, and artefacts from the British Museum.

Detail of part of the Paolozzi murals at Tottenham Court Road, pre-restoration in 2014. © Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this geograph page

But no description of them can ever quite prepare you for the kaleidoscope of colours Paolozzi used, nor the intricacy of the detail. They might not be favourite artworks of mine – they’re just a bit too, well, weird, for my tastes – but I can certainly appreciate the level of work and artistry that is on display. Originally, it seems, the plan was for the murals to extend beyond the rears of the platforms and onto the tunnel walls on the far side of the railway tracks, but that would have deprived London Transport of one of its revenue-generative advertising poster locations.

Tottenham Court Road is, of course, soon to be one of the stations on Crossrail 1 (I will not call it the E******** line until such time as the roundel hierarchy confusion that surrounds it is cleared up; another of Boris Johnson’s daft ideas). It is the construction of Crossrail 1 that caused real problems for fans of Paolozzi’s work there.

The mural at the top of the escalators, photographed in 2014. © Copyright Mike Quinn and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence, via this geograph page

The station’s ticket office originally featured a large mural at the top of the escalator shaft, and there was another mural at the entrance from Oxford Street. Both would be lost in the station’s Crossrail-related reconstruction and refurbishment, which included a massive expansion of the ticket hall. Announced in 2014, the loss of these works was met with petitions to save the murals being signed by thousands of people, and a lot of bad press for Transport for London (TfL). London newspaper the Evening Standard frequently reported on the story. While the Twentieth Century Society demanded urgent talks with TfL January 2015 over the fate of the two murals, in February 2015 the Evening Standard reported that the escalator shaft murals had already been dismantled and lost. The Twentieth Century Society did, however, get an agreement from TfL that the Oxford Street entrance mural would be relocated within the station.

But then in July it turned out that the escalator shaft murals not been lost at all, and were to be donated to the University of Edinburgh’s College of Art. What a relief; but not quite. The story had another twist when it turned out that the bits of the escalator mural donated to the college amounted to only 45% of the original, leaving the college with the question of how to display the remains. “It is not very straightforward. We don’t have one whole arch, or one large part of an archway – but they are really beautiful,” the University’s public art officer was reported as saying.

Meanwhile, the Central and Northern platforms at Tottenham Court Road were fully refurbished, and new access points provided to the Crossrail platforms, sometimes right in the middle of the existing murals. During this process, the remaining murals were repaired/cleaned up too, and this has not met with universal satisfaction. In fact, the restoration of the surviving murals has caused just as much controversy as the removal of the remainder.

Newly restored murals on the Northern line platforms at Tottenham Court Road. Photo by Matt Brown [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Although TfL likes to say that 95% of Paolozzi’s murals have been retained during the renovation works, it’s far from the case that Paolozzi’s original works have simply been cleaned up in situ. In some cases, large new replicas have had to be made. Mosaic and mural artist Gary Drostle explains on his website that he was commissioned to recreate five panels for the Central line platforms that had been completely destroyed as part of the reconfiguration works to allow access to the Crossrail platforms, along with patches for other parts of the Paolozzio murals which had remained in situ but which were damaged.

“Unfortunately,” as Drostle explains, “no one had taken proper photographs before the pieces were demolished, nor did they properly salvage the materials to either re-use or check the colours.” He attributes the problem to a change of mind on the part of TfL after the public campaign over the loss of the murals. He suggests that more of the murals were retained at platform level than was originally planned. That makes sense. If TfL had originally planned to get rid of larger sections of the murals completely rather than restore them, there would have been no need to keep a detailed record of their appearance for restoration purposes. Regardless, Drostle won a 2016 National Railway Heritage Award for his work at the station.

Newly restored Paolozzi mural in the ‘rotunda’ area of Tottenham Court Road station. Photo by Roger Marks [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

Here we enter the murky world of art restoration though, and to what extent a significantly restored artwork is in fact the original piece. Paolozzi’s murals at the station had become increasingly dirty, thanks in no small part to the diffident cleaning standards on the London Underground in the 1980s and 1990s (others who used the network at the time will know what I mean). Simple cleaning of the remaining mosaics would have radically changed their appearance in any case, but as we have seen, considerable recreation of lost and damaged areas was the actual order of the day. The end result hasn’t pleased everyone. Writing in The Spectator, Jack Wakefield suggested that “as far as I can see all of the Paolozzi murals have been lost…The old mosaics, made up of thousands of tesserae, must have been utterly destroyed and then there must have been an attempt to re-execute them. Looked at close up the materials do not seem to be cheap exactly but the overall effect is drab and lifeless.

The mural restoration/reconstruction programme was completed in February this year, to much self-congratulation on the part of Transport for London. It held a small event in the station and released of a video about the murals and their preservation/reconstruction during the Crossrail-related station rebuilding. Not all the comments in it can be easily reconciled with some of those reported above, but here it is:

Perhaps one of the reasons that Paolozzi’s Tottenham Court Road murals found themselves in an unfortunate argument over the integrity of their restoration is that they were never listed, which would have afforded them some degree of statutory protection in the first place. The Twentieth Century Society was reported as suggesting that the reason it did not seek listing was that TfL had reassured it that the murals would be safe; a reassurance that the society later wished it had not relied upon.

The set of murals at Tottenham Court Road is by far Paolozzi’s most famous artwork for transport in London, but it is not the only one. The second, however, is the subject of some confusion. Despite its relative lack of fame, this one is listed. Located in Pimlico, south London, it is a ventilation shaft built in 1982. It is frequently cited as being a shaft for the Victoria line (for instance in Badsey-Ellis (2012), though it seems a little unfair to single this book out as it’s not the only source to make this claim; see also photo library Alamy, here). Statutory heritage body English Heritage insists in its listing citation that the shaft “has no functional relationship with London Underground” and is in fact for an underground car park. Short of sticking one’s head down it, it’s not easy to discern the truth of the matter.

The Paolozzi ventilation shaft near Pimlico London Underground station. Photo by Jim Linwood ( [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever the actual transport mode with which it is associated, it’s certainly transport-related and a fit subject for inclusion here. The tall, cuboid shaft is made of cast metal and features “exposed and celebrated mechanical features and an anthropomorphic robotic quality“. Above this part is a set of intertwined tubes, and that’s topped off with the actual ventilation grilles. It is an example of Paolozzi’s disintegrated robotics-style to which he returned time and again over his career. Again, it’s not really an artwork I particularly warm to, but it’s an undeniably dramatic piece.

Paolozzi’s third major transport artwork in London was commissioned by British Rail, in the same year London Transport commissioned the Tottenham Court Road murals, 1980. This one sits in front of Euston station, and is called Piscator. Seen from street level it is almost wilfully impenetrable, an aluminium-finished lump of hollows and mounds topped off by angular blocks. Seen from the offices above, however, the blocks on top of the sculpture resolve into the form of a Primitivist representation of a person.

Piscator, outside Euston station. Photo by Eirian Evans [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Those surrounding offices are owned by Sydney & London [Properties], although the land on which they stand is on a leasehold from Euston station’s owner, rail infrastructure operator Network Rail. Network Rail insists the open space in which Piscator stands is also part of the Sydney & London [Properties] leasehold, while the latter is just as insistent that it leases only the buildings, not the space between, and that the open space remains Network Rail’s responsibility. Piscator is at risk of deterioration after years in London’s polluted air, and the last time I saw it, it was looking absolutely filthy.

The Paolozzi Foundation would dearly love to clean up the sculpture, and carry out any repair work which might be necessary, work which it would undertake at its own expense. But they need permission from the landowner, and both Network Rail and Sydney & London [Properties] are absolutely insistent that it’s not them. With Network Rail now being fully nationalised, perhaps UK transport secretary Chris Grayling can apply his unique intellectual prowess to sorting out the problem. After throwing rail devolution and electrification plans into complete chaos with an almost wilful disregard for pragmatism, strategy or even common sense, it should be right up his street.

At least the future of Paolozzi’s last great transport artwork, London to Paris, is more secure. Another sculpture, completed during Paolozzi’s final years (in 2000) and amongst his last large-scale works, this one is safely at the CASS Sculpture Foundation in West Sussex. It is made of wood and bronze and features dismembered hands, feet and the head of a mechanoid figure, lying atop a flatbed railway wagon.

London to Paris at the CASS Sculpture Foundation. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

The sculpture was based on the train trips Paolozzi used to take as a child between Edinburgh and Milan, changing trains in London and Paris. Although the sculpture suggests some deeply disturbing train journeys, as I mentioned last week I used to find the tunnel outside Liverpool Lime Street station quite terrifying. Perhaps Paolozzi’s childhood train journeys were, like mine, a mixture of excitement and fear. I doubt Eurostar will be embracing this artwork to promote their London to Paris train services any time soon, but as a “surreal and dreamlike encapsulation of a memory“, perhaps London to Paris is not so far off the mark.

How to find Eduardo Paolozzi’s transport artworks

The murals at Tottenham Court station are mostly still there, if arguably not authentically original. Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

The ventilation shaft is easily seen outside Pimlico station on London Underground’s Victoria line. Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

Piscator is still outside Euston station and is easily visited. Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

London to Paris can be seen at the CASS Sculpture Foundation near Goodwood, West Sussex. Click here for visiting details.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Badsey-Ellis, Antony (2012): Underground Heritage. Crowthorne: Capital Transport

The Paolozzi Foundation, here

2016 The Guardian story on Piscator, and who actually owns it, here

Paolozzi obituary in The Guardian, here

2013 Review of Paolozzi exhibition in The Independent, here

TfL’s Art on the Underground project page for the restoration (or not, depending on whose opinion you rely on) of the Paolozzi murals at Tottenham Court Road station, here

CASS Sculpture Foundation’s page for London to Paris, here

Several stories from the Twentieth Century Society on the Tottenham Court Road murals brouhaha: here, here, here and here

…and anything else linked to in the text above.

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