Countless books have been written about the stories of London, but rarely have those tales been so effectively brought to life as in the London Transport Museum’s new display.
‘London Stories’, one of those ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ exhibitions, showcases 50 works that were shortlisted for this year’s Serco Prize for Illustration. The brief for the artists was to visually capture one of the myriad fictional or factual stories about the capital, ranging from the notorious – Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, for example, or Sweeney Todd – to the rather more esoteric and obscure.
The illustrations themselves are absorbing, ranging from colourful abstract designs to whimsical poster art and more painterly effects, but it is the trivia behind them that makes the display so engrossing. Who knew, for example, that the name of the Soho area derives from a former hunting cry; a factoid perfectly illustrated with a re-imagined and rather more pastoral Soho Square populated by men on horses. Or that the British Museum once had a cat in residence; a feline so famous that he attracted an obituary in Time Magazine in 1927. Or that in the early 20th century there was supposedly a train that went from Whitechapel to the Royal London Hospital transporting the bodies of the deceased; a deliciously gothic story that is well told in an illustration contrasting the bright colours of life overground with a series of greying, ghostly figures in the carriage below.
Some recall recent events – the whale in the Thames, for example – others take on urban legends and fairytales, while still others effectively capture the capital’s rich history, not least the Thames on ice in the Tudor centuries, and ‘London Shadows’, a cityscape with silhouettes of the capital’s most famous fictional inhabitants, including Mary Poppins and Oliver Twist, dancing mischievously between the rooftops. Sticking with the Dickensian theme, ‘You’ve got to pick an oyster or two’, displaying Fagin relieving a behatted gentleman of his Oyster card, was one of several works that brought a smile to my face.
Some of the illustrators have chosen to look back through the centuries, depicting obscure stories from years gone by – among them an eye-catching picture of the polar bear Henry III kept at the Tower of London, on a chain long enough that it could reach into the water to sample the fish – while others have chosen to showcase more recent happenings, like the London bus that cleared Tower Bridge as it began opening in 1952. In the latter, the artist has deftly caricatured the stricken expressions of those on board, and juxtaposed them with mesmerised passers-by watching from safer ground.
And others have chosen simply to capture the story of the city itself, from Richard Williams’ illustration ‘Wide Boy’, which portrays a Del Boy-esque character with London’s most iconic attractions stowed away in his inside pocket, to the simple ‘Love on the Night Bus’, a rose-tinted but touching view of a couple on the N17.
It’s a short but sweet ride through London past and its potential, containing the work of skilled illustrators with an obvious affection for their subject matter. The entry price gets you into the wider museum, which is a treat for transport nerds and poster art aficionados, but in any case this makes for an unexpectedly diverting half hour, offering a welcome reminder of the countless sides to our city. London has many more stories to tell, but the ones on display here make for a fascinating start.
London Stories, London Transport Museum, entry £15, ltmuseum.co.uk