Holborn Station Murals

Making the Holborn Murals

The Holborn project originated in a call for entries from London Underground back in 1983 when I was in my first year studying for an MA in illustration at the Royal College of Art. Eduardo Paolozzi was a visiting professor in ceramics at the time and he was very helpful, telling me that he had created all of his designs for Tottenham Court Road station using photocopies pasted onto cardboard models. He told me that he had done a lot of the work at home on his kitchen table using scissors and glue. This gave me the courage to work very simply in collage. I photocopied the architects' drawings I had been supplied with, made some models like Eduardo's, and then set to work.

I had just come back from Greece and Italy, using a Royal Society of Arts Bursary, and the trompe-l’oeil murals at Pompeii had fascinated me. I was sketching Smirke's magnificent British Museum ioinic portico when I saw immediately how the building's windows are simultaneously hidden and revealed by the fluted columns. Back in the studio at the RCA I made a number of paper trompe l' oiel columns and pasted them across photocopies of the old archive pictures, all against a black background. The idea began to develop that when you ride into the station you immediately know where you are because the columns whizz by. When the train comes to a stop you can get off and look closely at the ghostly details in the images.

Working with The British Museum 

 London Underground had already rejected a couple of schemes for Holborn, created by architecture firms. They came to the RCA and were very specific about referencing the British Museum (although there actually is a station on the Central Line named Museum, which you can just glimpse in the darkness on the Piccadilly Line between Covent Garden and Holborn).

During my research, the museum gave me access to their archive of wonderful large negative photos of Egyptian and Roman antiquities. These were very old but had super-hi resolution, and I found I could make use of them. 

 Working in Vitreous Enamel on Steel 

Next came the technical challenge of recreating this at full scale, in enamel on steel. This work was done at L'Emaillerie Moderne de L'Aisne in France. I made friends with the artisans there, and we built a curved silkscreen bed (not something I have ever seen since), and even made curved metal silkscreens. The photos were then printed in enamel paste, dried, and then I brushed off the unwanted parts of the images before firing. I made the tropme l'oiel columns using stencils that I cut myself from plastic. I painted through these stencils with a spray gun filled with enamel soloution. The panels needed several firings, which was another technical challenge. The end result is fantastic. There is nothing to beat enamel on steel, it's a beautiful process and the finish is so durable.

 The floors at Holborn are also my design, again inspired by my studies in Pompeii. London Underground's floor contractor had already priced the job by this time, so I had to work out an economic way of getting the terrazzo tiles cut, grouted and polished within budget. The floor designs work with the wall designs and are a key part of the experience of passing through the platforms and passageways.

 I was very definite about using a lot of black, and keeping it looking very dramatic and monochrome. The biggest challenge was to accommodate all of the posters and signage that might interfere with the overall effect, and I held out for an all-black scheme in order to give the art a feel of going beyond all of the visual clutter.  It was difficult, trying to convince London Underground not to go for an all-over beige scheme, which they tended towards. I was delighted when my ideas were eventually approved.

Lighting Scheme  

20 years on I still love the station. My only wish is that the lighting I was promised had been installed. Instead of the overhead strip light, I had asked for the pelmet lighting similar to that used in David Gentleman's Charing Cross tube station design. I had also hoped for halogen spotlights hitting the terrazzo floor. But no such luck, and I'm still hoping. But London Underground were marvellous to let a student loose on mural designs for one of London's biggest subway interchanges.

And as a footnote, when the scheme was nearly finished in 1990, I found my young family, and myself quite by accident, living in the very house that Eduardo Paolozzi had recently vacated at Landermere Quay in Essex. And that's where my children's book career began - in the studio across the lane from Nigel Henderson's house.  If you look closely at the way my first book The Willow Pattern Story works as you turn the pages, you will see that the design funcitons in the same linear way as my murals at Holborn. There is a overall big rhythm at the margins, and plenty of detail in small vignette images.