As logos go, it's a classic. It's damned simple - just a bar on a circle. It's as iconic as the tube map, or maybe even more so. It's the London Transport roundel. And it's celebrating its centenary this year.
If you're travelling round the Underground today, only a handful of places remain where an original-style roundel can still be seen. One location is at the foot ofthe stairs on the Districtlineplatforms at Ealing Broadway, while another lurks deep beneath the surface at CaledonianRoad. And then there's Covent Garden, right up at the far end of the westbound platform beyond the safety barrier where no mere mortal is permitted to tread. It's a very raw piece of signage, just a blue rectangle across a red enamel disc, with the station name written in some ancient font. But it was a first attempt to introduce consistent visual clarity for passengers, and remains perfectly recognisable to this day. The disc became a loopy circle in 1917, and rapidly spread across the entire network of buses, railways and coaches. I could tell you more, but why bother when the London Transport Museum has put together a perfectly detailed online illustrated history of 100 years of the evolving roundel.
TfL's centenary extravaganza doesn't stop there, oh no. A trio of commemorative roundels have been commissioned - one outside St James's Park station, another at New Shepherd'sBush and a third at Wood Lane. And there's also a celebratory (and rather cheap) exhibition with the catchy title of 100 Years, 100 Artists, 100 Works of Art. The title reveals the concept. The folks at Art On The Underground asked a ton of artists to knock up a bit of art inspired by the roundel. Cost so far, zero. Then they hung all the artworks in a school hall in Shoreditch. Cost so far, probably not much. And (starting tomorrow) they're going to auction off a print of each work in an eBay-style auction. Ultimate profit, probably quite a lot. Value-for-money obsessed Boris is no doubt very proud that these days even heritage contributes to TfL's coffers.
The exhibition's only open for three weeks, so I popped down last night to take a look. Annoyingly the nearest stationdoesn't open for two years, so I faced a considerable trek to reach the backstreets around Arnold Circus. Erm, I think it's around here somewhere, that looks a bit like a Victorian school, where's the way in, and is this door actually open? Ah yes. A welcoming committee of three girls awaited, sat behind a desk piled low with unbought merchandise. And then onward into the high-windowed school hall, a room I had almost to myself. Cue the art.
Ooh, this was a rather diverse selection. The artists have interpreted their brief in a multitude of different ways, some graphic, some literal, some photographic, some abstract and some just wonderfully obtuse. Some looked like the heritage posters of old, while others were considerably more modern. Some made me go "wow, that's clever", and others made me think "pah, I bet they dashed this rubbish off in a few minutes". Proper art, then. But then you can't really go wrong with a roundel. Something circular-ish with something rectangular-ish across it, tarted up a bit, done.
I amused myself by wandering the walls trying to work out which artwork I'd bid for, if I actually did that sort of thing. My eye was taken by the more abstract designs, using the roundel as part of a repeating moquette or as a long distance reveal. Maybe the roundel as a flock of birds, or as a Mobius strip, or as a hole in a sliced loaf. Or maybe the atmospheric landscape in which a shimmering roundel reflected on a tree-shadowed pool. Sir Peter Blake had taken a very colourful geometric approach, which worked strikingly well. But my ultimate favourite was picture number 18 by Henry Coleman, the Venn diagram in which a sea of blue bars morphed effortlessly into a army of red circles. I like my art clever but simple. Which is, essentially, why the adaptable old roundel has survived the century.