The best London tube photo ever? (revisited)

The best London tube photo ever? (revisited)

Was this photograph from 1937 somehow the best ever taken on London’s tube system? It’s certainly a very unusual composition for its time because it suggests a substantial abstraction and mystique. We do not know who the subject is other than its a guy in a bowler hat and his entire figure is almost in shadow. It could have been anybody. Maybe it was the tube staff who were present? Its a mystery picture because so little is in fact known about it.

And this is what this article sets out to answer. When I wrote my earlier post on this it was just basic stuff like everything else that has been written about Hoppé’s 1937 photograph – that’s very little written in fact. Surely there must be far more to this photograph than has been written so far?

E.O.Hoppé was a German who settled in London and was considerably noted for many iconic images taken in those days. There’s very few railway images by Hoppe, in fact he took hardly any except where related – for example the arch of a railway viaduct and in this case, a disused tube subway tunnel connecting the lifts to the station platform.

This post is in fact derived from an earlier one I wrote in 2013. That was however a very brief post and this new one has been expanded considerably in order to provide some quite detailed information on this fantastic image taken at the disused British Museum tube station in 1937.

Its a celebrated image of course, but most will wonder, well there isn’t a British Museum these days so where would this photograph have been taken. The former station was sited near the British Museum itself between Holborn and Tottenham Court Road stations. Central line trains still pass through its tunnels but there’s little to see. There’s simply no access of any sort from the surface.

The old station building seen in the 1980s before it was demolished. Source: Wikipedia.

The station was still largely extant in 1937, well before its conversion to a military command post. It does seem that Hoppé and his subject in question gained access via the usual route – main station entrance and spiral stairs. But why chose this station? Well its something I’ve tried to answer as we shall see later – but first, the photograph itself…

Hoppé’s 1937 photo taken in the British Museum station subway. Source: Twitter

What is Hoppé’s photograph telling us? Is the man uncertain of things? Sees the wording, tries to work out what is ‘best?’ Is he heading in the wrong direction – of life – or whatever beguiles him?

The wording on the advert reads:

comes from
The Times Furnishing Co Ltd
£1 a month buys £10
Branches at
(unreadable) ….Clapham Road, Brixton,
(unreadable) ….Croydon

Is the wording relevant at all? The man with the bowler hat is clearly looking at just one word in the advert – BEST. Why is that? Did he think that particular furniture was in fact the best? Or perhaps he is rather thinking the British Museum station was the best on the Central London railway – and its sad its been closed down – with just this one lovely advert as a poignant reminder of what once was a busy tube station?

The light issuing from the subway passage to the right indicates perhaps that our subject should be thinking about heading that way for a better direction in life. The light beckons him towards an unknown destination. It could represent a portal or something of the sort. Our subject is all alone in this because only he can make a decision based upon what he sees and experiences. For all we know, Hoppé may well had some sort of metaphor visualised in his mind’s eye when he composed this shot.

The picture itself doesn’t actually tell us a lot. We’re attracted to it because its mystique somehow draws us to admire the composition. I’m sure many think ‘wow this is a great photograph!’ Its is, there’s no doubt about that. Perhaps Hoppé’s intent was to leave the full detail up to the viewer? There’s little information about the picture but we can certainly extract various elements from it and begin to build a narrative of some kind.

Who was the guy being photographed? I do not know. Perhaps we should just call him the great unknown tube passenger? Some would perhaps suggest he was a business man. Possibly because of his bowler hat. He wouldn’t have been a city gent, but possibly someone in charge of haberdashery or ironmongery. Those two things would have been an important part of the manufacture of furniture.

List of Times Furnishing stores in London. The main HQ in High Holborn still exists to this day – and curiously the building is right next to the present Holborn tube station! Source: Manchester History.

The subject in question could even have been someone from Times Furnishing’s nearby store in High Holborn who had been asked to come and admire this greatly forgotten advert. Or even a friend or associate of the Hoppés.

He might have even been the London Underground manager who had given Hoppé permission to take photographs at the station – and had come along for the ride too!

Or perhaps its the most surprising option of the lot – Hoppé himself was posing in the shot. Its possible, he could have set up his camera and then put on a bowler hat and proceed to the agreed spot where the subject would be seen. His wife would merely have to press the medium format camera’s cable operated trigger.

One thing we do know about the picture is the location hadn’t been visited in a long time. The floors are thick with dust. The two or three of them (don’t forget there may have been a third or a fourth – that’s someone from the LTPB…) had disturbed the floor and made what seems to be some rather intricate patterns on the floor.

The patterned surface on the floor of the subway is actually dust from the trains & tunnels. Footfalls have created the seemingly random patterns.

It does also look that something rather heavy was dragged across the floor and then along the wall. A light stand maybe. Sandbags perhaps? Or maybe a broom was used to create the endeavour there had been something of sorts that had been dragged around.

What brought Hoppe to photograph at this location? The station was closed four years previously. Perhaps he had walked through here oft times and remembered the location, especially its unique advert? More of that later…

Was it because Hoppe had compiled a special book covering London and George VI? Both were products of 1937. The British Museum station could be said to have been a remnant of George VI’s London.

The London of George VI by E. O. Hoppé. Source: Amazon

Well I don’t think there was actually any sort of connotation between the new King, Queen, and the Times advertisement. However the book depicts many of London’s icons including museums and galleries, and the British Museum is the last to be depicted in the book. The image Hoppe took of the British Museum is quite striking for it has a lighting effect that does quite remind us of that he took in the old British Museum station! Its how the light falls on the subjects and each person at the bottom of the stairs becomes a sort of silhouette, surrounded by a golden light.

Hoppe, British Museum, from his book The London of George VI, pub 1937.

Instead of the light sweeping down the huge stairwell as in the British Museum picture, Hoppe instead arranged for the light to sweep round the corner in his tube station photograph. Its a great move, however the difference would be in the British Museum picture there was very little light bounce, whereas in that tube station passageway the glazed light cream tiles would give off quite a lot of light bounce.

The fact it was a curved passageway also gives rise to the means and ways light can bounce off walls and illuminate areas out of reach – and some wondered whether it was possible to light every corner of a single room of conceivable shape or form using just one light source. It is of course possible and Hoppé was counting on that.

If one turns the British Museum station sideways one can see there’s a similar technique to the other composition. Its not the same of course, because the golden glow around the silhouette doesn’t exist. But it certainly shows us Hoppe had similar ideas for both in terms of how the light fell on its subjects.

The first, The British Museum, used the available lighting that was on those stairs at the time. By deference of the distance between the light sources and the subjects the light was both diffused and softened. In the second, the British Museum station, just a single light source was used, but the fact the light bounced off the walls and illuminated other parts of the passageway made it ever so dramatic.

We can deduct from this that the British Museum (and its tube station) had a special meaning for Hoppe. in terms of the guy in the bowler hat admiring (or examining carefully) the Times furniture advertisement, it can too be likened to the people on the huge staircase at the British Museum admiring the artefacts on the wall at the midway staircase landing. Clearly the Times furniture advert could now be seen as an artefact, much the same as those found in the British Museum.

And… I suppose in a way… if one finds the advert today by means of an excursion into the old British Museum tube station, well I’m sure they would admire it too as if some Golden Fleece that had been missing for hundreds of years! I suppose we could jokingly call it the Arc of the Covenant! Any persons coming across it would be looking at it and asking themselves, what was this huge advert doing here why was it there and what was its purpose, and the rest of it. And who, or what was, Times Furnishing?

Arts curator Phillip Prodger says Hoppé was interested in the nature of success and failure – the psychology of his subjects – often photographed in intense and startlingly modern tight-cropped close up, with no background detail. This theory might explain the rationale behind Hoppe’s 1937 image, though I somehow doubt those on the main British Museum’s staircase could be described as failures?

I don’t know. Maybe we are all in fact failures because we need to archive and preserve the past as a way of reminding ourselves that others before us probably did so much more than we do these days! The hard work in building the pyramids for example. Today we would employ cranes and machines and computers – that might easily be a way of looking at our present society and begin, for the first time possibly, to realise just how failed we are!

When the British Museum station closed the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) permitted Times Furnishing to have a brand new (replacement) advert in its new station at Holborn – this being the first of many the station’s seen since its opening in November 1933. A photo of this advert can be seen at the LT Museum Archives, and its clear that advert stretched right across the top of the escalators and had a real clock too.

Hoppe’s photograph was featured on a reissue of his work in 2006. Source: Amazon

Clearly the older British Museum advert was a precursor to the new LPTB. It wasn’t even the LPTB’s style for a start! The Central London Railway was an independent company right up to 1933 when the LPTB took over, however the company worked with the Underground Electric Railways of London to provide a common identity across the London tube railways and I don’t think the Times Furnishing Advert would have been a product of that either.

What this means is the advert may well have been one that had survived right from the early days of the Central London Railway – because it was a good one, eye catching even, and its positioning in that part of this passageway is what made it stand out. Thus it was a totally unique advert as far as London’s underground system was concerned. It was a unique one off advert, and one that clearly was painted by hand.

There’s many reasons why Hoppé would chose this location and not others, after all there were still many tube stations at the time with similar locations that could be used for a photograph. But none of those other sites would have worked for this one at British Museum was so damn totally unique.

I’m sure Hoppé remembered it and knew it was damn good eye candy, – one that would make any photograph taken at that very location a damn good composition too! And he knew that with the right lighting, any composition taken here would practically punch people’s senses! Hoppé was right. The photograph works ever so damn well. Its a classic and has to be one of the best, if not the best photograph, ever taken at any tube station.

The British Museum station in 1941 with workmen bricking up the space between the platforms and the tracks. Source: LT Museum.

Hoppe’s photograph at the now closed British Museum tube station couldn’t have been taken without the aid of underground staff. Not unless Hoppé and his subject were both an early kind of urban guerrilla! Clearly someone from the LPTB had to give Hoppe and his unknown subject access from New Oxford Street down to the station itself. Or maybe they had arrived by train, which was then held in the station siding whilst Hoppe’s photo-shoot took place.

Some might argue that the station platforms had been bricked up by then thus this would have been impossible. However its evident from the above photograph that the old station platforms could still be used – at least until 1941. This was when work was undertaken to convert the station into an air raid shelter. That as well as the military post some sources say it was. In terms of this being an air raid shelter, it wasn’t an official one – not any of those that could be seen in documents and on official maps. I don’t know how much of ‘air raid shelter’ it was, but perhaps it had been one that had been established at short notice when the tube’s other shelters were found to be quite under pressure with huge numbers of people wanting to use these.

Over 100,000 people sheltered each night at 83 stations – however the British Museum station isn’t on this map. Its not even on the official list of Government tube shelters. There’s a small note at the top of the page which tells us that station was established by the local council (in those days that would have been Holborn and St. Pancras.) Source: Twitter.

One thing is known and that is the station wasn’t really a proper air raid shelter, not like some of the others. It remained more or less like a tube station and saw little in the way of additions or modifications save for perhaps some necessary facilities such as kitchens and toilets. One wont be able to find artefacts here pertaining to its use as an air raid shelter as is found at some of the system’s other shelters.

The question of how much of an air raid shelter isnt really important to this topic, but it does show that it could well have been possible that Hoppé and his entourage had arrived by train especially when one considers the station’s platforms were still extant at the time and these had not yet been bricked up to prevent access from the tracks..

What of his entourage besides the mysterious bowler hatted guy? Well we know Hoppé was with his wife. There’s a picture of her looking at her posh gloves which have been dirtied from being placed on the old and very dirty wooden staircase banisters! She certainly looks most annoyed in the photograph. Its perhaps the one and only photograph of Hoppé’s wife too as I haven’t seen any others in the specialist collections dedicated to Hoppé’s work.

Hoppe’s wife looks at her gloves in disgust after they have been dirtied. Source: Pinterest.

As for the singular source of light that can be seen in the famous photograph – where was that coming from – besides his wife being in charge of that if not actually at the camera itself? Well I think I have the answer to that! If the lifts were still working perhaps a large light source was brought down, and then positioned just outside the lift entrance, from where it was plugged in and directed towards the advertisement.

There’s another aspect to that. The photograph could have been taken in either direction however Hoppé chose to take the photograph in the direction of the lifts. Its of course possible the lifts were no longer working but there was sufficient passageway length in that direction for a large light to be placed and there was a power source in that direction. The light could have been brought up from the tube platforms and placed there. Easier than lumbering it down all those spiral stairs!

The same flight of stairs in 2011! Source: Guerrilla Exploring. (Note: It seems the Guerrila Exploring site has ceased thus an archived image is used here.)

This is just all theoretical of course. I do know from past experience (this is going back some sixty years or so…) that if one did know a tube driver or staff well enough, they could be persuaded to stop at some disused platform. I assume Hoppé had enough influence and prior arrangement in hand to pursue either method – via the stairs from the top or via train from the bottom. In those days staff would have been fairly willing to employ a special train for this purpose. I’m not saying it was done – just a possibility. It wouldn’t be allowed now of course – unless perhaps the person was a huge celebrity or something of the sort.

British Museum Underground station

The approach to the flight of stairs seen in 2013. The Times Furnishing advert is out of sight just to the right. Source: Flickr

I don’t know what these piles of bags and wooden planks are for. They may have been for some works in the tunnels at the time. Its clearly not anything to do with the removal of the British Museum siding which was undertaken in the summer of 2016 on the basis these were not used much. That work would have required a engineering train and track gangs to be present. Here’s a LUL driver complaining of the effect the siding’s removal would have on train services.

The Hoppe advert seen in 2011 – image seen at Guerrilla Exploring. The tunnel in the background leads to the stairs. The advert frame was painted in what seems a red/gold – with black lettering. (Note: It seems the Guerrila Exploring site has ceased thus an archived image is used here.)

British Museum Underground station

The Times Furnishing advert seen in 2013. This view looks in the direction of the lifts. These days tunnel is blocked off just round the corner. Source: Flickr.

Its clear from these photographs that current (well not so current!) maintenance staff have little care for an old tube advert dating more than a hundred years old. Its why piles of bundled bags have been lumped onto the advert itself!

After all, no-one is going to see the advert these days! Let’s face it one won’t ever find Hidden London Hangouts down here! In fact the question of an episode on the British Museum was raised during the series but Chris Nix explained on one of their Youtube broadcasts that it was just too difficult in terms of the very limited access afforded.

British Museum station in the early 1930s before it closed. Source: Twitter

The British Museum station was considered superfluous to requirements as the more useful stations were at Holborn Kingsway and Tottenham Court Road stations were a short walk away thus the LPTB built a new interchange at Holborn which gave direct connections between the Piccadilly Line and Central London Railway for the first time.

Not only that it focussed Holborn as a major hub too – for one of the subterranean stations on the former London tram system was located here, accessed by a flight of stairs outside Holborn tube station. The tram station was also enlarged by the LPTB thus passengers had the benefit of a totally modern transport exchange hub.

Another view of the old British Museum station building before it was demolished – Flickr.