Sunday, October 31, 2010

The London Wonderground map

The Wonderground map, much larger version here.

In 1914, the artist Macdonald Gill was commissioned to design a new map of central London and the public transport running through it.  The map had an extra job to do, promoting the tube outside of just commuting to work:

[Frank Pick, marketing manager for the underground] saw the importance of turning the firm’s loosely connected routes into an integrated transport system, making it, and by extension the city, a comprehensible entity, while simultaneously using the power of suggestion (new places to see…new things to do) to generate increased ridership in off-peak hours, holidays and weekends.

[Elisabeth Burdon from the Antiquarian Booksellers Association]

Gill’s map is a fanciful, fairy-tale version of London.  He styled it after medieval maps, with vivid colours, cartoonish little buildings lining the streets, and an assortment of playful characters sprinkled throughout the city.

Wonderground Sample 1

This sample shows Buckingham Palace (top left) and the Houses of Parliament (by the Thames).  The three red buildings that look a little like circus tents are tube stations.  In the bottom left corner someone is hauling on a railway switch; towards the top someone is feeding ducks in St James’ Park; there may be a couple of other figures in the centre, but I can’t make out what they are doing.

The map’s little cartoons includes groan inducing puns such as this one around Earl’s Court:

Wonderground Sample 2

Or these two characters in the Zoo:

Wonderground Sample 3

One is saying “Dear Giraffe, here is a bun”, the other says “Dear Tom, do you not see that he is fed up?”.  Get it, a giraffe, fed up?  Ho ho ho.  On the scroll appears to be William Blake’s poem “The Tiger”, or at least a sample from it.  There are many other snippets of poems or songs on the map, including (I believe) one from supernatural story author Algernon Blackwood.

Among the jokes are some little pictures that are rather odd.  Here is one from the area around Hyde Park:

Wonderground Sample 4

‘The Serpentine’ is the name of the lake that divides Hyde Park from Kensington Gardens, here has a dragon emerge from it and chase people out of the park.  But what’s that hanged man above the dragon’s head?  He seems to be saying something about going “when my neck gives out”.

This version of the map only lasted a couple of years, but it influenced similar maps in many other cities.  Sydney produced one for the opening of the Harbour Bridge, Boston, Manhattan, and Philadelphia each had maps in a similar style, as did Chicago and Mexico City.

Its later replacement, the 1933 London Underground map, is one of the world’s great iconic images.  Henry Beck’s notion to remove all detail from it produced a map uniquely suited to answering questions like “how do I get from Shepherd’s Bush to Highgate”?

The 1933 map, from Alan Gryfe’s collection

The Wonderground map is better suited for the question “Do I want to go to Highgate or to Shepherd’s Bush?”  Where the London of the 1933 map is all about efficient people in pinstripe suits and bowler hats getting from A to B, the Wonderground London is full of possibilities and stories.

So here’s a reminder that there are two things that a map may do in a game: tell the characters how they may get to a place, and suggest places that they may want to go.  And further than that, what if the cartoons on a map like the Wonderground were actually clues of something happening, what if they depicted a second esoteric London that was happening alongside work-a-day London?  What if an Earl was caught at Earl’s Court?  Perhaps someone may have acted as judge, jury, and executioner in place of a court?  And likewise with the hanged man and Serpentine dragon?

1 comment:

  1. The hanged man is hanging from "Tyburn Tree". The "tree" was a three sided gallows roughly where Marble Arch is now. It was used until the 1780s and could be used for multiple executions.