We all have our favourite spots in London; a corner we adore that others walk right by, a park bench that conjures up a happy memory, or a quiet street that encapsulates the melting pot spirit of the city. Perhaps it’s the view of Buckingham Palace from a bridge in St James’ Park, perhaps it’s the urban grittiness of the skatepark on the South Bank, or perhaps it’s a less showy setting like the Brockwell Lido at dawn.
These are among the locations around the capital that have been captured by illustrators as part of the quirky and delightful ‘London Places and Spaces’ exhibition, which runs for another month at the London Transport Museum. The display brings together 100 images out of a longlist of more than 1,000, submitted by professional and part-time artists, as part of an annual competition run by the museum and the Association of Illustrators.
The brief they were given was simple: they were invited to take people on a visual journey across London, from the starry skies of the Greenwich Observatory (the winning entry), to the urban jungle of the viewing platform in Kew. But while the display includes no shortage of illustrations devoted to London’s flagship sites – two of the fountains at Somerset House, a pair reflecting on the hubbub of Columbia Road Flower Market, another honouring the bucolic charm of the Heath – the more intriguing drawings are those celebrating more obscure locations, or bringing the specific curiosities of life in the capital to the fore.
So nestled between illustrations featuring Buckingham Palace or a royal park are those celebrating the mundane, the everyday; a pigeon atop the head of Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetery, the Abbey Mills pumping station, a garden square nestled snugly between identikit tower blocks. Two entries focus on feet and the idea that many of us experience the city as a collection of boots, stilettos and sandals as we gaze down at the floor – or anywhere but at each other – while enduring the daily commute.
Another celebrates the nostalgic spirit of London at the moment, by re-purposing the capital’s biggest landmarks as fondant fancies and fairy cakes atop a cake stand, to create a finished product Mary Berry would be proud of. And naturally, the dreary weather gets its dues. One of the standout images is ‘Underground Unites’ by Tory Polska, depicting a rush of umbrellas descending into Piccadilly Circus tube station, the monotonous grey of the soggy commuters contrasted with the crimson beacon of the TfL logo.
The illustrations themselves are stunning, demonstrating an array of techniques, from collage to more traditional line drawing. Some are in the manner of traditional tube posters, all stark lines and primary colours, like one of the Tate Modern in autumn, which manages to make one of London’s more unsightly landmarks seem almost magnificent. Others are more abstract; the runner-up image by Carly Allen-Fletcher, ‘Compound City’, is a pixelated panorama that calls to mind the 19th century impressionists, with London’s familiar skyline woven softly into the blocks of colour.
The display is laid out in no particular order, in keeping with the hectic, haphazard nature of the city these images are celebrating. So you flit from a whimsical map of an imagined Wild West between Covent Garden and Leicester Square to a cartoonish image of a very English picnic in Green Park, laid out as if each component were a part in a board game.
If you’re visiting as a group, you’re bound to squabble over your top pick. Mine was a toss-up between Federico Babina’s ‘Inside London’, an almost gothic vision of London as seen from within the depths of Big Ben, and Elena Godina’s beguiling ‘London Fog’, which shows a red phone box emerging from a dusky, diminishing London skyline. I also adored a drawing showing birds flying across the skies of London at sunrise, a reminder that the capital is not man’s playground alone.
Like many of the locations captured by the illustrators, this is a hidden gem of an exhibition. The drawings are marvellous, celebrating metropolitan life in all its incarnations, and they deserve a wider audience. Catch this before it closes, and fall in love with 100 different visions of the capital.
London Places and Spaces, at the London Transport Museum, until 6th September.