diamond geezer

 Friday, October 25, 2013

NORTHERN: Charing Cross

It's one of my favourite Northern line stations. Not the top level bit, which is an austere subway. Not the ticket hall, which is a wholly unwelcoming brown. Not the mid-level passages, which are over-long. But the platforms themselves, both north and south, which have the most delightful monochrome artwork.



The walls on the Northern line at Charing Cross were decorated by artist David Gentleman in 1978. He created a 100 metre mural that depicts the creation of the feature on the streets above that gives the station its name, the Eleanor Cross. Queen Eleanor was the wife of Edward I, and died on royal walkabout in Lincolnshire in 1290. The king was so griefstricken he erected a stone cross at each of the locations her body rested on the 12-day journey back to London. The last of these was at what's now Charing Cross, the current ornate pinnacle being a Victorian replica of the original. David's wood-engraved cartoon depicts the construction of the Eleanor Cross and the workers who toiled to create it, in sort-of chronological order from one end of the platform to the other. There are quarrymen, rough-hewers, masons, mortarers, layers, setters, carpenters, thatchers, scaffolders, labourers, crane-men, apprentices, hodmen, drivers, horsemen and boatmen, plus a few incidental animals as well. If the platform's empty enough you can follow the entire story, from the quarrying of the stone to the lowering of a statue of Queen Eleanor onto the cross at the far end. It's a charming concept, lovingly realised, and entirely upper-class-free.



A particularly unusual thing about Gentleman's design is the holes. Back in the 1970s it was perfectly natural to have litter bins of Underground platforms, so David embedded his into the overall design. Every now and again the picture breaks and there's space for a rectangular slot, say in the middle of a woodpile or workbench. Above the gap is the word LITTER in black Johnston capitals, entirely anachronistic but necessarily functional. But then came the IRA bombing campaigns, or rather then came health and safety risk reduction rules related to potential terrorist outrage, and all the litter bin slots were boarded over. They weren't even artfully boarded over, with a vinyl panel of a vaguely similar colour bolted in across the top. Some look neat-ish, but others look more forced, creating an untidy white void in the middle of Gentleman's mural.



Perhaps more evocative, harking back to a simpler age, are the boxes labelled STAFF LETTERS. In the 1970s, long before email, written messages were passed between stations by underground postmen. They trooped round the network delivering letters and notices - one of the cushier jobs on the tube, often given to those who were long-term sick. Their services are no longer required now communication is instantaneous, so all the STAFF LETTERS boxes are boarded up too. It would be unthinkable to have accessible cavities behind vinyl panelling today, and while you could argue that no bomb has ever exploded in an opaque litter bin on the underground, you could also argue that's solely because there aren't any. Never mind, ignore the modern intrusions and revel instead in David Gentleman's effortlessly excellent artwork. One expects Queen Eleanor would be proud.


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