Skip down the Tottenham Court Road tube station escalators onto its subterranean platforms and you’ll see why many critics believe Eduardo Paolozzi’s brilliant mosaics made for one of London Transport’s finest public commissions.
Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s the capital’s transport department began a lengthy campaign to modernize its labyrinthine network of underground stations, appealing to a number of artists to aid with the redesigning of station layouts and redecoration of their interiors. As the grandfather of Pop Art and with a formidable reputation as a sculptor and printmaker, Paolozzi was an obvious choice: modern, internationally renowned, and universally acclaimed.
Approached in 1979, the artist immediately engaged with the given brief, as his own account of the commission reveals: I thought always of the people who use the Tube. What happens when a platform is crowded? What happens when people pass quickly through the station on the train? Will people relate to the metaphors I sought in connection with life above ground – cameras, music shops, saxophones, electronics? ...My ‘alphabet’ of images for Tottenham Court Road reflects my interpretation of the past, present and future of the area.
detail of Paolozzi's 'Tottenham Court Road Study' panel, one of a series made on melamine; the influence of the local architectural school and nearby camera shops is clear to see
Inspired by the station’s location amidst neon-bright hi-fi stores and camera shops, Paolozzi began work by producing monumental studies for the later mosaics. Initially drawing out his intricate designs in miniature, these sketches were then enlarged and transferred to screens before being printed on enormous melamine panels. Colour was then applied by hand, the ceramic-like surface of the plates lending Paolozzi’s oils a translucency to mimic the vibrant colour of the final mosaic pieces.
Paolozzi's completed mosaics, installed throughout the underground platforms
Installed throughout the station tunnels half a decade later, the reception of the finished mosaics was an instant success: to the esteemed art critic Richard Cork they were no less than a tour de force of modern art; to Roger de Grey, then president of the Royal Academy, Paolozzi’s work constituted a remarkable event in the development in public art in this country, showing how art can transform our everyday surroundings.
With its sprawling pipes and wires and blueprint layouts, this panel represents an essential historic relic of the project, demonstrating the ease with which Paolozzi’s creative mind moved from the small-scale to the colossal. Superbly composed and truly iconic, it makes for a genuine once-in-a-lifetime piece.