Orange Art Squeezed: The Overground’s Stalled Art Programme (London, UK)

London Underground has always had a close relationship with art. You can see its beginnings in Leslie Green’s ornate yet modular and mass-produced Art Nouveau station decoration schemes, then in Frank Pick’s 1920s-30s vision of the Underground, and later London Transport as a whole, embodying the concept of total design. Even in the otherwise barren 1970s and 80s, as London Transport struggled through various funding crises to deliver its transport offer, there were oases of artistic endeavour like the Victoria line station murals and Eduardo Paolozzi’s murals at Tottenham Court Road Underground station.

Warren Street mural. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
In 2000, London Underground launched its “Platform for Art” programme, sponsoring artists to provide artworks which decorate stations, grace the cover of Underground maps, or can be reproduced as posters which both promote the Underground and public arts. Subsequently renamed “Art on the Underground“, it continues to go from strength to strength, with Marianna Simnett recently commissioned to provide the cover of the latest Night Tube map with her beautiful depiction of kaleidoscopic birds sleeping as they fly.

You have been reading The Beauty of Transport for long enough now to realise that such an introduction is likely to presage not an article on that subject, but on something else tangentially related. True to form (and indeed the title of this week’s article), that is once again the case. Art on the Underground inspired two smaller Transport for London arts programmes, on the DLR and the London Overground, and it’s the latter we’ll be looking at today.

Hoxton Overground station. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page
London Overground began operations in November 2007. Transport for London (TfL) took over from the Department for Transport as franchising/concession-letting authority for various suburban railway lines previously operated by Silverlink. Later additions of the Underground’s East London line (from which the Overground inherited its distinctive orange colour scheme, as seen in the photo above) and the mainline South London line created a new commuter network based around an orbital railway. Another set of lines was added in 2015, running out of Liverpool Street station, but for now further development is on hold because the current transport secretary doesn’t like rail devolution, despite the fact that he seems to have no idea how to manage the railways he remains responsible for.

With the launch of the Overground came the launch of an accompanying arts strategy, published by TfL in August 2008, explaining the organisation’s desire to install art at stations to accompany the various other improvements TfL was making to the ex-Silverlink Overground lines. “Examples of incorporation of art into public transport systems across the world have been shown to bring long-term benefits for both the scheme and locality,” explained the strategy.

The tender to write the arts strategy had been won by Modus Operandi, a public realm arts projects consultancy. It was subsequently retained by London Overground to commission and install the artworks resulting from the arts strategy, in a programme called “Art Overground”.

On the staircase leading down into Haggerston’s ticket hall. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
Art Overground kicked off in phenomenal style in 2010 at Haggerston station on the East London line. Passengers walk down from the elevated platforms, along staircases lined with peach/pink mosaic tiling (an important detail, as it turns out). As they walk down the final steps into the ticket hall, they are confronted by an enormous mural on the far side. Printed on ceramic tiles and titled “The Elliptical Switchback”, it is the work of artist Tod Hanson. Its astronomical design is inspired by local resident Edmund Halley, predictor of the reappearance of Halley’s Comet (and, by extension, the existence of short-period comets in general). The compass needle relates to the north-south orientation of the railway tracks at Haggerston. However it also, along with the ‘worlds within worlds’ design, relates to one of Halley’s less well-remembered assertions, i.e. that Earth’s magnetic field could be explained by the Earth being hollow and containing several other planetary bodies, concentrically arranged and separated by their own atmospheres. To the best of our current scientific knowledge, this is not true.

The Elliptical Switchback by Tod Hanson. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
Hanson’s mural is a beautiful piece of work, spectacular not just because of its size but because of its clever design. It uses trompe l’oeil to create a convincing impression of depth. It partly works because the edges of the circular cut-outs depicted in the mural are the same colour as the tiling on the staircases of the station. Because those staircases have genuine depth, the use of the same colour in the mural helps convince the viewer that it has depth too. There’s also, I think, something of Abram Games’ stylish graphical work for the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition in there too.

Hanson is fascinated by these brain-bending geometric tromp l’oeil works, as you can see from his website, here, and several of his other installations are on also public display.

In 2011, Clare Woods‘ commission for Art Overground, “Evening’s Hill” was completed at Hampstead Heath station. An abstract representation of the heath itself, this mural (also on ceramic tiles) runs along the platform, and is intended to evoke the open space of the heath, in the heart of London’s railway network. She often works at a large scale, and has completed several other public commissions, as you can see on her website, here.

Evening’s Hill mural by Clare Woods at Hampstead Heath station. Photo by Tom Page [CC BY-SA 2.0] via this flickr page
Sadly, the Art Overground project seems to have come to a halt after just these two artworks, perhaps not coincidentally because public expenditure of all sorts was so drastically reigned in by the financial crisis and subsequent austerity programme which began in the late 2000s. Although Modus Operandi’s London Overground Public Arts programme webpage optimistically states that further stations being considered for arts commissions include Kensal Rise, Hoxton and Willesden Junction, to the best of my knowledge none of them have ever been completed.

That has not, however, prevented the wildly successful London Overground network from firmly establishing itself in London’s cultural psyche, providing the inspiration for off-network works of art and culture. See for instance, “Pentuple- Orange Overground” in the Saatchi collection, or Iain Sinclair’s book London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line. Or the Gingerline pop-up dining experience, the exact location of which is a mystery until you’ve bought tickets, with the exception of the fact that it will be somewhere on the Overground.

And even if not part of the original Art Overground project, at least some Overground stations are still gaining artworks. Walthamstow-based artist and printmaker Farah Ishaq recently won the “Community Art Schemes – Renewable & Smaller” prize at the 2017 Association of Community Rail Partnerships Awards for her mural at St James station on the Liverpool Street – Chingford Overground line. She then created eight identical but individually coloured linocut prints (one for each of the stations in Waltham Forest), again reproduced on aluminium, to mark London Overground’s 10th anniversary. The challenge is to find each of the circular “London Underground is 10” murals somewhere at its station, and it has been taken up with enthusiasm:

It’s like a small, London Overground, version of London Underground’s “Labyrinth” artwork, where the challenge is also to find the artwork at each of the Underground’s stations.

So here we are, having come full circle, like the Overground itself, returning to where we started. Art Overground might have spluttered to a halt before it really got going – though not before bequeathing the network two wonderful murals – but Art on the Underground continues to roll on. As in its art, so in all other things, the Underground overshadowing the rest of TfL’s transport operations. It’s not a complaint, simply an observation, and Labyrinth in particular is one of my favourite products of Art on the Underground. But I think it’s a story for another day.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Modus Operandi’s London Overground Public Art Programme webpages, here

Art on the Underground’s homepage, here

…and anything linked to in the text above.

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