The London Underground may often be crowded and uncomfortable, but it is brightened up in many stations by public art. Every day countless thousands see the Paolozzi mosaics at Tottenham Court Road, Tate Britain paintings at Pimlico and tiles commemorating Sherlock Holmes at Baker Street.
When Crossrail, which we’ll soon be calling the Elizabeth Line, opens in December, seven central and east London stations will have a variety of art from paintings to sculptures to moving images. A free exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery (which itself sits over Aldgate East station) gives an intriguing taste of what’s in store for us.
The boldest and most colourful art has to be the huge portrayals of East-Enders that will decorate Whitechapel station. Artist Chantal Joffe spent a Sunday afternoon last year walking around Whitechapel photographing people on the streets and in the market. Her vivid collages immortalising the many different cultures of the East End, enlarged to six feet, will hang above the platforms there.
At Canary Wharf, Michal Rovner’s huge digital screen outside the station will show ribbons of people moving on stylised Tube lines beneath our feet, superimposed on a panorama of the London skyline.
Simon Periton’s intricate artwork at the entrances to Farringdon station is inspired by two very different characteristics of the area: gemlike images in the western ticket halls are based on the jewel trade of nearby Hatton Garden, while the exterior glazing at the eastern entrance echoes the elaborate Victorian metalwork of Smithfield market directly opposite.
Liverpool Street will have two sculptures. Conrad Shawcross used a Victorian harmonograph, with two pendulums drawing the oscillation of a piano chord fading into silence, and will turn this into a 3D bronze sculpture at the western end of the station. At the eastern end, Yayoi Kusama will create polished stainless steel molecular structures 30ft long and 10ft high.
Inspired by the nameplates on steam engines, Darren Almond commissioned the original foundries to make new bronze and aluminium texts for Bond Street station.
Reflecting the 1960s nightlife of Soho, Douglas Gordon’s work at the new Dean Street entrance of Tottenham Court Road has flashing neon lights spelling “Non-Stop Revue”. Artist Richard Wright will spend several weeks lying on his back beneath the ceiling at the existing station, like Michelangelo, hand-gilding the delicate tracery of his artwork with gold leaf, while passengers at Paddington will look up to see a glass canopy 400ft long featuring cloud studies by Spencer Finch.
This exhibition is just a hint of what we’ll see come December. Astonishingly, although the Government has spent billions on Crossrail, not a penny of it went towards its art, which has all been paid for by corporate sponsorship, matched by the City of London Corporation.
Art Capital: Art for the Elizabeth Line is at Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, until May 6