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Harry Beck’s original 1933 London Underground Map

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Harry Beck holding an electrical circuit diagram


The London Underground Map as we know it today was developed by Harry Beck in 1933. Beck was an electrical draughtsman, and based his map on circuit diagrams. The map is a topological diagram of the 275 stations and 400 km of tracks that make up the London Underground. It uses coloured lines, either horizontal, vertical or at angles of 45, together with circles and coloured 'ticks' for stations. The tube lines are various in colour - relating to the different companies which in the past ran the different lines.

The map is reproduced over 60 million times each year by companies other than London Transport. This, together with the 3 million journeys made each day on the underground, make the map one of the most well known pieces of graphic design of the 20th Century.

The map successfully solved the problem of representing the 'geographical bunching' of the stations - that is, that the great majority of stations were centrally placed on the map if produced geographically correctly. The lines which extended to the periphery of London would cause the dense information for the central London area to be unreadable if produced at a reasonable size for carrying around. Up until 1961, for example, the Metropolitan and District line ran all the way to Aylesbury.

The way Beck solved this problem was by jettisoning the geographical information, but keeping the relational information. The map nicely illustrates how maps are about relationships between things.

The map was originally rejected by the publicity board of London Underground in 1931 because it appeared too revolutionary. In the first maps of the London Underground, surface geographical features were included. These were gradually dropped as superfluous, the only feature kept being the river, which enables users to see some relationship between the 'real life' geography and the station positions. The map can still confuse tourists who expect there to be some geographical content to the map.

As Bill Bryson notes in his book 'Notes From a Small Island', someone travelling from Bank Station to Mansion House could either “take a Central Line train to Liverpool Street, change to a Circle Line train heading east and travel five more stops', or just walk 200 feet up the road.”

The Great Bear by Simon Patterson (1992)

The constellation of the Great Bear - photograph by Nick Mee

Simon Patterson's piece 'The Great Bear' (1992) takes the London Underground tube map and replaces the station names with names of famous cultural figures throughout history, through to the end of the 20th Century. Patterson chose the tube map for its accessibility - the tube map is a well known and loved London icon, and as such is accessible to those who would not necessarily be accustomed to looking at artworks.

In Patterson's words “the Underground Map is recognisable, although it is an abstraction that seems representative of place; people who are not interested in art might like it, because it is comfortable.”

Originally Patterson's plan was to produce 'The Great Bear' as a poster and give it out for free, but London Underground prevented this on the basis that this would be too confusing for the public. When he finally gained permission to use the map, he had to produce it as a limited edition print, although it is now available as a poster.

'The Great Bear' brings together layers of information and obfuscation, working as a map in that it enables the viewer to locate themselves in relationship to other 'things', but in this case the relationship is not with underground stations but with cultural icons.

The London Underground map is an immediate icon, a map which enables one to locate oneself in relationship to the tube system and includes the key to the different coloured lines. The substituted station names allow one to locate oneself in relation to philosophers, film stars etc. and enables one to place both oneself and the artwork within a cultural context and a time period (late 20th Century / early 21st Century).

This 'layer' of information points at another one - the question of what system has been used to choose a particular type of figurehead for a particular line, and a particular name for a particular station.

The title 'The Great Bear' brings in another layer of meaning, that of star constellations, and with that, the myths which go along with the name of The Great Bear constellation. These myths are only extant in the work if the viewer knows them: the work changes depending on who reads it.

Text by Anna Oliver: 'A reading of Simon Patterson's piece The Great Bear' 
Web Link:
www.annao.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/index.htm