Explore The Story Of London's Nightlife Through Design

Night Shift: London After Dark, London Transport Museum ★★★★☆

Rachel Stoplar
By Rachel Stoplar Last edited 35 months ago
Explore The Story Of London's Nightlife Through Design Night Shift: London After Dark, London Transport Museum 4
Mosaic artwork by Trevor Caley (who worked with Palozzi) commissioned for the new travelcard in 1987

London Transport Museum's latest offering is worth seeing for the posters alone. Nightshift — London After Dark features iconic, cleverly captioned artworks with gorgeous graphics. That's just the beginning; there are also photographs, mosaics, comics, cartoons, video footage, record sleeves and even a kirigami model to lead us succinctly through a century of the city's nocturnal history.

This is a real jaunt — from the advent and spread of electric lighting to designs for the hoped-for night tube. It's just a shame that an exhibition spanning so much time is quite so swift, occupying just one floor of the already small exhibition space.

Refined posters with Art Nouveau elements entice early 20th century pleasure-seekers to seek out London's cultural attractions by horse-drawn tram. Impressionistic maps show the wealth of theatres and cinemas across the capital; a cheeky poster asks 'Why home so soon?'. There and Back by Harold Sandys Williamson (1928) recalls Parisian posterboy Toulouse-Lautrec, while a beautiful piece by Philip Thompson in 1958 is an expressionistic delight, Klee with fuzzy edges. Making a night of it in London is nothing new.

The evolution of night work also plays a major role. Early night buses took workers to Ludgate Hill, where you can still see butchers working at Smithfields in the wee hours, as they do in the photos here. Posters from the 1980s appeal to City boys now able to work round the clock, with the opening up of the global financial markets. Economic growth is evident: electric lighting meant factories opened later, buses started running all night in 1913 to get the workers there, in turn providing more jobs. We see 'fluffers' cleaning the tunnels at night with glorified feather-dusters, and rat-catchers dispatching ferrets.

Soberer photographs depict Second World War Londoners sleeping stacked up the escalator steps, trying to catch a few uncomfortable winks as bombers whirred overhead. The images are striking, but this is where the exhibition could really do with more space to explore: more images of the Underground tunnels as makeshift refuge, more information about what they were like (dangerous). That said, the permanent collection (included in the ticket price) does have a world wars room for those wanting more, a highlight of which is the testimony of a WWII bus driver who had to ask passengers where they were as he couldn't see a thing in the blackout.

Certain items make their gallery debut, including a 1922 election night map showing where to go to listen to the results, broadcast by the BBC over the radio for the first time. There are also new commissions especially for the exhibition, the best of which is the aforementioned kirigami model by Marc Hagan-Guirey, a.k.a. Paper Dandy. The Curious Night Shift ties together the various strands of the exhibition, the leisure of Theatreland (it's a scene from the National Theatre blockbuster) with night workers in the forefront and TfL design interspersed. It's like the inverse of a collage: a three-dimensional paper cut-out, made over five painstaking days, and as such cleverly represents the seamless connection of the differing elements of London after dark. A satisfying wrap to this clever little show. Even if the show is a little too little.

there_and_back__harold_sandys_williamson__1928_1.jpg
There and Back, Harold Sandys Williamson, 1928
the_curious_night_shift__paper_dandy_3.jpg
The Curious Night Shift, Paper Dandy, 2015
rat_catchers_in_the_underground_near_king-s_cross__colin_tait__1950_1.jpg
Rat catchers in the Underground near King's Cross, Colin Tait, 1950
first_night_bus_outside_piccadilly_station_1913_1.jpg
First night bus outside Piccadilly Station, 1913
election_night_-map-__artist_unknown__1922_2.jpg
Election night map, artist unknown, 1922

Night Shift — London After Dark is on at London Transport Museum, Covent Garden Piazza, WC2E 7BB until 10 April. Entry to the museum costs £16 or £13.50 for concessions, and allows access for a 12 month period from the date of purchase, children go free. Londonist saw this exhibition on a complimentary ticket. Tickets to the Friday Late tonight cost £12/£10.

Last Updated 11 September 2015