Art of the Underground: Celebrating 150 years of inspiration on London's historic Tube

It is exactly 150 years since the first journey took place on the oldest and longest underground railway in the world. On January 9, 1863, the precursor to today's Tube - the Metropolitan Railway - made the first passenger journey three-and-a-half miles underground between Paddington and Farringdon stations in London.

Despite 'The Times' newspaper describing the running of steam trains under London's streets as 'an insult to common sense', the Underground proved so popular that it was carrying 26,000 passengers daily within the first few months of opening.  Now more than one billion annual journeys are made by Tube, with customers travelling through 270 stations and sharing the subterranean space with half a million mice.  London Underground's trains travel 43 million miles a year - the equivalent of 1,735 trips around the world or 90 roundtrips to the moon.

London Underground not only stands as proof of pioneering technological and engineering feats, it has also helped produce and inspire art. Visual art, design, theatre, literature, music and film are all referenced on the London Underground, from the iconic blue and red roundel logo created over a century ago by calligrapher Edward Johnston to posters and artworks commissioned by famous international artists, not to mention the tributes at various stations to writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and film director Alfred Hitchcock. Conan Doyle's fictional hero, Sherlock Holmes, appears on tiles at Baker Street station, and mosaics depicting scenes from Hitchcock's films were unveiled on the 100th anniversary of his death at the station in Leytonstone, where he was born.

[Flickr Pictures: Dear Tube, Happy Birthday!]

Another set of mosaics which are justifiably admired are Eduardo Paolozzi's 1,000 square metres of colourful glass tiles at Tottenham Court Road showing musical instruments from shops near the station.  And Highgate residents may not be aware that their station is associated with controversial television talk show host Jerry Springer who was born during World War II in Highgate Underground when the station was being used as an air raid shelter.

The Underground's association with the arts started in earnest in the 1920s with Frank Pick, who was head of the Tube network and the first Chairman of the Council for Art and Industry (the forerunner of today's Design Council). Pick commissioned artists such as Man Ray, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash to create posters and appointed the well-known British architect Charles Holden to design modernist and art deco stations. Arnos Grove and Gants Hill are two fine examples of Holden's designs, featuring barrel-vaulted halls and art deco lamps. In 2007 a modern day tribute to Holden's work was shown in 'the gateway to London' - the ticket hall at Heathrow's Terminal 4 station - by the artist Rut Blees Luxemburg, with exterior shots of 12 classic underground stations designed by Holden.

Today, Transport for London's 'Art on the Underground' programme continues to commission new artworks by well-known and emerging artists, from large scale works like Sarah Morris's abstract 'Big Ben' which span the arches at Gloucester Road to smaller scale projects like pocket tube map cover designs from Tracey Emin, Liam Gillick, Barbara Kruger and Yinka Shonibare. 

Also in partnership with Art on the Underground, the BFI is showing short films from its archive throughout February on the large screen at Canary Wharf.

Poster Art 150: London’s greatest Designs - an exhibition at London Transport Museum featuring 150 of the best Underground posters - runs from 15 February until 27 October 2013.