Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Down Street, London

On the tracks of old railways (1): Identity

Go on. You know what this is, or what it was, don’t you? If you’ve lived in London, or been to London, and you’re not rich enough to ride around all the time in taxis, you’ll recognise the style straight away. Oxblood-coloured tiles, semicircular windows a bit like the Diocletian windows used in Roman and Palladian architecture, classical details like the dentil course at the top, the occasional Art Nouveau curlicue. But especially those oxblood tiles. It’s an underground station, of course, or, in this case, Down Street Station having closed in 1932, a former underground station. It was never heavily used, being close to other stations on the network and in a well-to-do area in which relatively few people took the tube; those who wanted a train could easily get one at nearby Hyde Park Corner or Dover Street (now Green Park).

That we know immediately what this building is or was is down to Leslie Green, architect to the Underground Electric Railways Company of London, who was tasked in 1903 with designing new stations on lines then opening that later became parts of the Piccadilly, Bakerloo, and Northern lines on the modern tube network. Green designed all these stations, about 50 of them, between 1903 and his death in 1908 at the tragically early age of 33.

He chose the shiny tiles for these facades because he knew they would be easy to keep clean and their uniform colour would be easy to identify. That would help travellers searching for a station, and so greatly increased the usefulness of the underground network. I remember my mother telling me about making her first trip to London from rural Lincolnshire in the 1940s. She was frightened of getting lost in the capital’s maze of streets. ‘You need never get lost in London,’ said the friends she was going to see. ‘Just find a station and take the tube to where you want to go.’ And so she could orient herself and find her destination, wherever it was, from Oxford Circus to Kentish Town.

With these innovative and enduring station designs, Leslie Green also started another ball rolling. He gave London’s underground network something akin to a three-dimensional corporate identity. That wasn’t a familiar concept in 1903, but it soon would be. He was a pioneer, then, in more ways than one. It’s pointless to speculate, but one can’t help wondering what else he could have achieved if he’d lived longer.


bazza said...

This is a fascinating topic. There are dozens of disused Underground Stations on the LT network. I instantly knew what your photo was of (but not which station). I had recently been looking at the old Aldwych station which has a similar appearance. One of the interesting ones is Blake Hall in Essex, formerly the least used station in the whole system. It's like a country Halt really and serviced about six passengers a day when it was closed but it's still there!
Green must have worked at a phenomenal rate during his tragically short life.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s unripe Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes. I was living in London when Blake Hall station closed and I remember reading about its closure, although I never went there. Also Aldwych, which I did use occasionally. There are whole books and web sites devoted to old Underground stations.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Identifying stations - this reminds me of the occasion when I walked straight past Belfast Central because I was looking for "the station". Overground has that little railway sign - absent of course in Northern Ireland.Although Ruskin said it was wrong to waste good architecture on a railway station, there's a lot to be said for making it prominent in the landscape if you can. It helps travellers in strange places catch the train they need to get home. My Belfast train met the Dublin train which met the Rosslare Ferry. It IS possible to try and sleep on the carpet at Rosslare terminal if you miss the boat. But a better idea is for somebody to make sure Belfast Central looks like a railway station, even for a dull-witted visitor from over the water!

Hels said...

Thinking that "only the good die young" is just a tragic waste. And the more talented the creative person is/was, the younger they seem to be when they die. Just think of how cool the world might have been, had Raphael, Seurat, Modigliani and Van Gogh lived to 45 or more. Not to forget Mozart, Bizet, Chopin and Schubert.

What might Green have achieved?

Mike Rigby said...

The oxblood tiles were manufactured by the Leeds Fireclay Company at their Burmantofts factory.

Joe Treasure said...

Indeed, Hels. And let me add Keats and the three Bronte sisters to your list. Very interesting topic, Phil. Living in London I get used to the fact that tube stations are so easily identifiable (as I am used to the clarity of the tube map). Good to remember that such benefits are not accidental. I have an idea that this used to be true of post offices and is no longer. But perhaps my memory isn't reliable on this.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Mike: Thank you for the info on the tile manufacturer. Burmantofts did quite a bit of architectural work. Like Doulton's, they combined this side of their business with art pottery.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joe: A lot of neo-Georgian Post Office were built in the interwar period. The Post Office also adopted a very classical-looking letter form for their signs (designed by Eric Gill I think). The combination of the Georgian facades with this lettering gave Post Offices a distinctive look – and the lettering carried this look on to the branches that were not in this architectural style, just as the sans serif Johnston lettering gives a uniform appearance to Underground stations. Though the Johnston lettering came in after Leslie Green designed his tiled stations, of course.