Monday, April 11, 2016

Highbury and Islington, London

An afternoon on the tiles

To London for the day, to have a look at Historic England’s excellent exhibition Out There (post-war public sculpture in England, just ended) and to catch up with my son and his girlfriend. As usual when I visit London, there were incidental architectural discoveries and a few passing glances towards buildings and features I’ve admired many times before. As my son lives in Islington, one of these admiring glances was in the direction of the tiles on the platforms of Highbury and Islington Underground Station (above), which were designed by Edward Bawden.

Each of the Victoria line stations has its own distinctive tile artwork in the seating recesses on the platforms, and each one reflects, comments, or riffs on the station’s name or locality. So there are crowns arranged crosswise at King’s Cross (a design by Tom Eckersley), a maze (or warren) at Warren Street (by Crosby Fletcher Forbes), a grid of dots (modern art, you see, chez the Tate) at Pimlico (by Peter Sedgely) and so on.* Bawden did the designs for three stations. His cameo of Queen Victoria at Victoria station is unexceptionable but also unexceptional I think and not especially Bawdenesque. His other two I really like: a castle for Highbury and Islington and a woman being ferried across a river for Tottenham Hale.† The first is to represent the ‘High Bury’, or borough, or castle, in the locality; the castle was destroyed during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. The second commemorates the old ferry, alluding to the theory that the ‘Hale’ in Tottenham Hale derives from either ‘Haul’, which is what the boat did, or ‘Hail’, which is what you did to attract the attention of the ferryman, I suppose.
Both designs have a clarity that reminds me of Bawden's work as a printmaker, particularly his linocuts. The Tottenham Hale image reminds one of Bawden’s skill in capturing figures in a few strong lines, and in getting in telling and affecting detail – the dog, a box of chickens, and an egg basket. The Highbury and Islington picture combines some key elements of a castle (solid masonry, towers, a portcullis, battlements) into a strong symbolic design: the essence of a castle. It’s on a mound too, a miniature city (or borough at least) on a hill, ripe for our examination, and admiration.

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•The Victoria Line Tiles website shows all of the designs on the line, from Brixton to Walthamstow Central.

†Tottenham Hale is a station I’ve only ever stopped at once, so I’ve taken the picture from the internet. It’s by Oxyman, and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. The Highbury and Islington picture is my own.


Joe Treasure said...

Thanks for this enjoyable post, Phil. Coming across these whimsical details is certainly one of the incidental pleasures of tube travel, for those of us who can avoid the commuter rush. Not as grandly beautiful as Moscow's, nor as grimly functional as New York's, London's stations offer all kinds of quirky pleasures. Thanks for the information on Bawden, and on the origins of Tottenham Hale.

Philip Wilkinson said...

These Bawden tiles do benefit from a bit of quiet, commuter-free contemplation. Trying to look at, let alone take photographs of, the Paolozzi tiles (what's left of them) at the perpetually crowded Tottenham Court Road station is very difficult. But those tiles are so bright and jazzy that they at least enliven one's time on the platform, even if they're only partly visible in the crush.