Wednesday, May 9, 2012

North Ealing, London


‘Stop pointing, it’s rude.’ That’s how the great Irish writer Flann O’Brien sometimes responded to the pointing finger device used on signs and in typography to indicate something important, or to show us the way to a destination. O’Brien sometimes used the pointing finger himself, especially in his newspaper column when he wanted to draw attention to something in the editorial, which was usually across the page from the column he wrote, under the name of Myles na Gopaleen, in the Irish Times. Back in Myles’s day, pointing fingers were everywhere – they’d been popular with the Victorians, and remained common in the first half of the last century.

We don’t see them often today, but here’s a survivor, above the steps to the platforms at North Ealing station in west London. I wonder if it has been there since the station opened in 1903. Back then, this suburban station was on the first above-ground section of London’s Underground to run electric trains. It was in the van of modernization, in other words, but if the electric trains seemed to look forward to a new age, the letterforms on this sign seem to look backwards to the time of Queen Victoria and steam railways.

 Compared to the elegant Edward Johnston signs that came to the Underground in the interwar period, this sign is no masterpiece of elegance. The tall condensed letters are slightly eccentric. The way the strokes of the S and G are cut off diagonally and the slight variations in stroke width in the R save them from being too heavy and blocky – or make them look odd, according to your taste. And the pointing finger, which has acres of white space on either side of it, has none at all below. It’s very much the standard signage of its time, in other words. The kind of thing one would see regularly on notices telling one to keep off the grass, or providing a hint of the day’s headlines. But the result is legible, and serviceable.

A hundred years ago there must have been thousands of such signs. Most of them have disappeared on to rubbish heaps or into the homes of rapacious collectors of railway memorabilia (you know who you are). I’m glad this one is still doing its job, directing passengers to Harrow, Uxbridge, and the far west.


worm said...

question - I wonder when the arrow as a graphic device for directions was invented? was it by one person? And at what date did it replace pointy fingers? I know that plenty of rail signs from this time do have skinny fletched arrows on them, but not the bold versions we know today

Philip Wilkinson said...

Good question, Worm, about the arrow.

Directional arrows probably derive from the use of arrows on compass roses in the late Middle Ages, but they don;t seem to come in on signposts until much later.

Milestones sometimes bear directional arrows, although my impression is that milestones with pointing fingers are more common. The ones with arrows are likely to be 19th century (the ones I've seen are cast-iron "milestones" I think), but I'm no expert on them. There were also rather ornate wrought-iron signs that had arrows at the very end of the 19th century. But even then, finger-posts and painted pointed fingers were probably more common.

Maybe directional arrows on signs, and in graphics, became more popular in the 1920s and 1930s, in part under the influence of graphic "picture languages" such as Isotype, which used arrows extensively.

Peter Ashley said...

Guilty as charged guv.

Designer Alan Fletcher collected pointing hands, and he put them into his essential book The Art of Looking Sideways.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: The Fletcher book is a visual Bible, the design equivalent of a great anthology like the Oxford Book of English Verse - but with the added benefit of it being the personal selection of a notable practitioner.

DJK said...

I saw a pointing finger just last week. The newly installed sign outside the local curch said: "POLLING STATION < pointing hand >"

Philip Wilkinson said...

DJK: Ah yes, Polling Station signs. They often have pointing fingers. I'd quite forgotten about this, there being no polling this month where I am.

bazza said...

(1) I think Flann O’Brien's The Third Policeman is the funniest book ever written. I Blogged about it here:
(2)What I really like about your photo is that wooden frieze they used around the canopy on old overground railway platforms.
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Agree about The Third Policeman. I'm also a great fan of the various collections of pieces from Cruiskeen Lawn, O'Brien's column in the Irish Times. The best of these collections is called The Best of Myles.

worm said...

I've just thought that I suppose there were arrow shapes used on weathervanes as well? Or do you think that thats a modern pastiche invention created after the fact?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Worm: Interesting point. I think there were early weather vanes that had a shape like a pennant, or poiny flag, which was itself rather like an arrow in shape. Untangling what is a pennant and what an arrow is something for someone who knows more about the history of weather vanes than I do.