In late 2010, Nicolette Tomkinson and I were contacted by David Bownes, the Head Curator of the London Transport Museum. Sitting in the museum café, on seats upholstered in fabric used on the Northern line in the 1930s, David presented us with an irresistible idea; to hold a never-to-be-repeated auction of duplicate posters from the London Transport Museum archive.
The Museum manages one of the greatest poster collections in the world, and an archive of over 40,500 posters and artworks. David’s vision was to raise much needed funds for dedicated use for future acquisition, conservation and restoration from the ‘spares’ that were held in the archive. The auction would have another purpose, though: to publicise the outstanding collection and the Underground’s commitment to design, which continues to this day.
The rich poster archive is thanks largely to the vision and legacy of one man: Frank Pick (1878–1941). In 1908, Pick was given responsibility for promoting the services of the Underground Electric Railways of London (UERL). He initiated a modern, colourful, poster campaign to encourage off peak travel, which has been actively continued ever since.
From the outset, the Underground commissioned the very best designers of the day to promote everything from leisure trips, seasonal sales and sporting fixtures, to the reliability of the Tube itself. By the 1920s and 30s, the status of winning a commission with the Underground was such that the company had no problem in attracting leading poster designers of the time, together with well known cutting edge modernists such as Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Julius Klinger. Fine artists, too, like Edward Wadsworth, Paul Nash and William Roberts, were equally keen to see their work displayed on what was soon termed ‘the longest art gallery in the world’.
We had to wait until 2012, however, before the auction was formally approved by TFL and the museums for the ethical disposal of collection items. At this stage, I had no doubt that the opportunity to work with one of the best poster archives in the world, and with the designs that shaped my home city’s visual culture, would be a career highlight. However, the experience of visiting the vast museum depot and working directly with the curators to hand-select the posters for sale was an experience that went beyond my expectations.
On the day of the auction, I walked into the auction to be faced with a packed saleroom, with standing room only. The room battled against remote bidding from the internet and telephones for eight hours. The enthusiasm of the bidders, keen to acquire a part of London’s rich visual heritage, ensured that every lot in the sale sold, realising a total of £1,026,750. The museum was delighted with the funds raised which have helped them to care and add to one of the world’s greatest urban transport collections.