The design heroines behind some of London’s best-known posters

CNN  — 

New exhibition “Poster Girls” isn’t quite what its elusive title suggests – because rather than being pictured in the designs, these “Poster Girls” are the creatives behind them. Taking place at the London Transport Museum, the exhibition celebrates the forgotten design heroines behind some of the UK’s most memorable posters.

Transport for London (TFL) estimates that, since 1910, over 170 women have been commissioned to design posters for the city’s various public transport campaigns. The designs come in a mixture of modernist, flat color, bold patterns, abstraction, collage and oil paintings, promoting everything from London Zoo to the variety of characters one can find on the Tube (specifically a fishmonger and, if you’re lucky, the city’s Mayor).

Pioneering designers

The 130-strong poster collection showcases an array of famous artists and designers, including Mabel Lucie Attwell, Laura Knight, Enid Marx and Zandra Rhodes. Their work sits alongside lesser known figures and a handful of women whose names were subsumed by the advertising agencies they worked for.

This poster illustrates a wide variety of London characters -- from a fishmonger to the Lord Mayor. Czech born Dorrit Dekk was paid 120 guineas for the design.

“It provides an opportunity to reflect on the changing social, economic and political conditions that affected women’s lives and work over the last century,” said London Transport Museum’s director, Sam Mullins, in a press statement. “Which is rather fitting as we approach the centenary, in 2018, of votes for women.”

TFL’s archive features over 1,000 posters designed by female artists, a large portion of which come from the 1920s and 1930s, according to exhibition co-curator, David Bownes.

“The underground had, at its helm, a quite extraordinary man named Frank Pick,” Bownes said, explaining why the period was so fruitful. “He was a real pioneer of the arts movement and he became Britain’s principle commissioner for what was called ‘industrial art and design,’ whether that was posters or station architecture.

Heather ('Herry') Perry was the most prolific female artist to work for London Transport, producing 55 designs between 1928 and 1937.

“Pick was responsible for finding new talent and didn’t have the prejudices that some of his contemporaries would have had … He believed in equality and an egalitarian society. He commissioned irrespective of gender.”

Another cause of the spike in commissions for female designers may have been the increasing access to design courses. A disproportionate number of students on these courses were women, Bownes said. “There was a new call for female talent in the 1920s, and London Transport (one of TFL’s predecessors) had someone … who was looking to recruit that sort of talent,” Bownes added.

A ‘neglected’ story

Some of the designs featured would win recognition not only for their pleasing aesthetics but for their cunning advertising. A poster by Dora M Batty, an Essex-born illustrator, artist and occasional potter, went on to be featured in the Design and Industries Association’s 1924 Yearbook as an example of high-quality modern design and effective advertising. In it, she used an illustration of a blooming foxglove to convey the beauty of Kew Gardens, one of London’s top attractions.

This panel poster is very similar to the book illustrations Joan Beales designed during the 1960s and 70s.

Giving designers like Batty the recognition they deserve is one of main goals of the exhibition, Bownes said. The story of women’s role in the design world is a “neglected one,” he added.

“Poster Girls – A Century of Art and Design” is on at the London Transport Museum until January 2019.