86. The platform murals at Charing Cross
David Gentleman’s designs for the walls of the Northern line platforms at Charing Cross, aside from suggesting that commuter rage dates back almost eight centuries, are a triumph from start to finish. And that’s a very long triumph, stretching as they do from one end of the platform to the other, and starring a cast of hundreds encompassing peasantry to pageantry, with the occasional pick-up en route:
Strictly speaking, the murals retell the story of the construction of the eponymous cross, built in 13th century on the order of King Edward I as one of a number in memory of his wife Eleanor of Castile.
But if you fancy a more figurative interpretation, the designs reflect anybody and everybody who travels on the Underground. The range of character types is so broad it’s almost always possible to find one that, if not directly resembling yourself, at least reflects something of your mood:
As we go about our toil, so does Gentleman’s ensemble, from the most humble to the most holy.
You may only grab a blur of images as your train rushes in, pauses then hurries off. Or you may have time to spy a face or feature that stays with you, in turn capturing a moment out of your day and elevating what can feel a mundane business – getting from A to B – into something a bit magical:
Close-up, you realise it’s not just human beings that benefit from the artist’s bracing, characterful style:
I reckon this is the murals’ greatest strength: the vivid personality of its subjects. These are historic events drawn in a very contemporary way. The scenes don’t seem rarefied, done for abstract contemplation. They’ve been leavened with a universal humanity.
Admittedly the amalgamation of unwelcome if necessary everyday ephemera sometimes looks, literally, rubbish:
But then you also get this, the Northern line roundel, popping up in wonderfully unlikely situations:
Frankly, who wouldn’t want to worship such a divine manifestation?
The murals are one of the few things London Transport got right in the 1970s. They date from when Charing Cross was reworked as the terminus of the newly-extended (and newly-named) Jubilee line, and when all the messy jostling of stations separately called Trafalgar Square, Strand and Embankment got tidied up.
It can’t have been easy persuading the LT suits of the merits of such an aesthetic investment. But then, as the murals show, we all have our crosses to bear.
No love for the portraits on the Bakerloo Line platforms?
I like them, but they suffer a bit from being jumbled up with a load of other designs and illustrations. The lack of one unifying style makes the platform walls seem a bit disorganised and incoherent.
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I’m impressed how much space the mural occupies that could have been used for advertising. Shall appreciate it more on my next visit.