The History of the London Underground Map by Caroline Roope review – the lines of beauty

<span>Illustration: Alamy</span>
Illustration: Alamy

This book’s title might suggest a history of the London Underground map of 1933 (which is technically a diagram), the one created by Harry Beck and resembling electric circuitry. But it’s really a history of London Underground maps plural, albeit with Beck as the star of the show. After all, there were underground maps before him, and there have been others since, because his original game-changer has been much messed with. Caroline Roope’s lucid and thoroughly researched study can also be read as a history of London Underground per se. In other words, she sets Harry Beck in the fullest possible context – a well-merited honour.

Beck supplied a brilliantly comprehensible map for an untidy city. It shows a metropolis of railway lines that are only ever horizontal, vertical or diagonal. For further clarity, he magnified the cluttered centre and minimised the sprawling suburbs, so, as Roope writes: “Uxbridge was as close to Hillingdon as Leicester Square was to Covent Garden.”

Beck’s map perhaps trapped people into the commuting lifestyle by making the suburbs appear closer

In their earliest diagrams the companies that became London Underground imposed their lines on a “base map” showing the local streets. But realistic geography faded away as the lines promoted their own concept of themselves. For example, on maps of Metroland, the suburb created by the Metropolitan Railway, golf clubs loomed disproportionately.

Conceptualiser-in-chief was Frank Pick, effectively head of design at the Underground Electric Railways Company of London and its successor, London Underground. As Roope identifies, Pick was a contradiction. On the positive side, a “genuine utopian impulse and a desire to improve the civic space” coexisted with a streak of amiable antiquarian whimsy, hence his commissioning of a decorative map proclaiming Edgware “a fayre and pleasant retreat from ye bustle of ye city”. But he also had some potentially bleak watchwords, such as “efficiency”, “functionality” and “modernity”, resulting in the Johnston typeface, which could be read from the ever-faster trains, disgorging ever more people into modern stations configured for optimum “passenger flow”. Roope invokes George Orwell, who saw the tube as “the ultimate symbol of bureaucratic control”, since it promoted commuting, “an essential cog in the machinery of capitalist society”.

Pick commissioned Beck’s map, which served this machine and perhaps trapped people into the commuting lifestyle by making the suburbs appear closer… and who knows how many commuters it brought to London from the provinces? But Beck seems an innocent abroad. This “honest and pleasant-looking man” had been retained intermittently by UERL as a technical draughtsman, and his employment status was ambiguous when he delivered the map, for which he was paid 10 guineas (about £800 in modern money). Beck believed himself the “rightful custodian” of the map, but others had different ideas, among them the cigar-chomping Harold F Hutchison, publicity officer of London Transport, who redrew it in 1960 and signed it with his own name. Beck’s lovingly wrought “bevelled corners” became “sharp angles” and, “the biggest travesty of all”, Aldgate was sliced in half, “so that ‘Ald’ appears on one side of the route line and ‘gate’ on the other”. Hutchison’s innovations were soon reversed, and in the 1970s, when LU was “managed for decline” amid rising car use, Beck’s map seemed a guarantor of the system’s essential virtue. He died in 1974, three years before the first T-shirt featuring the design appeared.

London public transport has rallied in recent decades, but the Jubilee line extension, the overground and the Elizabeth line have overwhelmed the map. Roope interviews some cartographers proposing replacements for Beck’s illustration, but, as she writes, they will have to do more than provide a “navigational tool”. To match Beck’s map – the original sketch of which is in the V&A – theirs will also have to be beautiful.

Andrew Martin’s latest book is Yorkshire: There and Back

The History of the London Underground Map by Caroline Roope is published by Pen & Sword (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply