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Sounds of the City

Sounds of the City

What noises do you associate with London? For many of us who endure the daily grind of the commute, it will be the tube screeching on its tracks, the ‘Mind the Gap’ announcement, the cacophony of chatter as the doors open and the crowds rush for the exit.

So there’s a particular pleasure in seeing the submissions to the Prize for Illustration 2017, themed this year around Sounds of the City, which speak to that most urban of experiences. There’s ‘Subway Song’ by Fredrik Swahn, which depicts in full glory a passenger strumming his guitar, oblivious to the displeased faces in the cramped carriage around him – a form of noise pollution all Londoners will surely be familiar with – or ‘Mind the Step!’ by Lucie Jillian, which displays the intensity of rush hour in a cloud of sharp lines and vivid colours, bags and emotions flying everywhere.

But as in real cities, there is more to this than the sound of the underground (and indeed, not all the entries take London as their canvas). The artists who have submitted their work have come up with all manner of clever and whimsical takes on the theme, from a woman plucking the railings on an urban street to literally make music out of urban life, to a guitar with its strings coloured to match the different tube lines. In addition to traditional illustrative techniques, some of the entries play with texture and material, or use speech bubbles to show the polyglot chatter of city dwellers.

Viewers are offered a feast of different artworks, celebrating the welcome and unwelcome sounds of city living, from the buzz of a summer evening to the clamour of market traders and the boom of the Notting Hill Carnival, and from a busker’s tune to the click of a heel on the pavement. Although very different in technique and subject matter, the 100 illustrations on show share the common theme that, in cities, silence may be rare but the noise is diverse.

Some of the most arresting illustrations consider the more inadvertent sounds of city life, from Jacob Stack’s image of foxes prowling around a rooftop playground, to those highlighting background noises such as the ding of the routemaster, the beep of a lorry in reverse, or the patter of the rain. There are those that communicate the sounds of London’s specific neighbourhoods; the particular patois that can be heard at Colombia Road Flower market or Old Billingsgate, for example. Indeed, for all that the exhibition is focused on cities, not a few of the entries remind that even in the urban jungle islands of calm can be carved out; Kate Sampson’s bucolic ‘Dawn Chorus’ portrays a woman in her townhouse garden listening the natural world, London’s landmarks looming behind her but her peace undisturbed.

Others take as their starting point London’s rich musical heritage; I loved the illustration that merged the colours of the tube lines into an old fashioned radio, inviting viewers to tune in to jazz at Ronnie Scott’s, a club night at Koko or a classical arrangement at the Royal Opera House. Another celebrates the sounds that have emanated from Broadcasting House – 80 this year – while still others nod to the private worlds we create by wearing headphones, alive to sounds only we can hear as we travel through the city.

And for a few of the artists, the absence of sound tells as much of a story as its presence; Kate Greenslade’s beautiful ‘Night Owl’, in which the only interruptions to an eerily quiet moonlit street are a mother comforting a baby and a train lit up above – is an ode to the other side of the city, and what happens when the hubbub of the day dies down.

This is always a wonderful exhibition, accessible and yet intriguing and thought-provoking, with huge amounts of talent on display. This year’s show does not disappoint.

The Prize for Illustration 2017: Sounds of the City is on display at London Transport Museum, until 3rd September. Tickets £17.50 (£15 concessions)