"Red Is The True Colour Of London"

"Red Is The True Colour Of London"

An extract from Peter Ackroyd's book Colours of London, in which he writes how red is inherently London's colour.

A vintage Routemaster bus on the road
"The buses of London have been red for longer than anyone can remember." Image: Chris Sampson via creative commons

Red has often been considered to be London's true colour.

It is the colour of power and the colour of avarice. 'Red' was the Cockney slang for gold itself, and is highly appropriate for a city established upon money and finance. Red is the colour of fire, to which the city was for many centuries susceptible. Red was also the colour of violence, for which the city has always been known. It is emblematic of pomp and war. It is also suggestive of sin or transgression, as if moving forward in the face of a red light. The cabs of the early 19th century were red. The pillar boxes and the remaining telephone boxes are still red. The buses are red, and the underground trains were until recently of that colour. The first-class stamps on letters are red, and so are the vans that collect them. There is a deep affinity between red, blood, communication and circulation. Red is the obvious visual indication of the link between the physicality of the human body and the physicality of the city. Laboratory tests have demonstrated that if a subject is wearing a blindfold, his or her pulse will quicken in the presence of red and decrease in the presence of blue. Red may increase the heart rate and quicken the functions of the brain. Waitresses wearing red are likely to be given larger gratuities. Red is the emblem of 'reality' and blue of 'ideality'. Red brick and terracotta lent its radiance to the streets. London may not be enhanced by red, but is partly constructed from it.

A woman in a red beret on the phone in a red phone box
"The pillar boxes and the remaining telephone boxes are still red. The buses are red, and the underground trains were until recently of that colour." Image: Londonist/James FitzGerald

The colour is even in the ground itself; the bright red layers of oxidised iron in the London clay identify conflagrations that occurred over two thousand years. Red is aggressive. Red is in earnest. It was the first colour to be discovered and named. The animal blood of cave paintings suggests this. Because the focal point of the colour lies just behind the retina, red always seems closer than it is.

The buses of London have been red for longer than anyone can remember. When the first tramlines down Pentonville Road from Angel to King's Cross came into operation during 1883, the earliest trams were of that colour. The early motor-buses of the 1900s, with open upper decks, were also red.

An old tube map
"The Central line is coloured red to signify its route through the most powerful centre of London." Image: Shawshots/Alamy Stock Photo, with permission from the publisher

The red bus has been ubiquitous ever since, evinced of course by the illustrious Routemaster. Of all London buses, this red double-decker has become the most familiar. The first experimental model was fashioned in September 1954 and the last bus was delivered in 1968. Its working life was in fact much longer. It came into regular service with London Transport in February 1956 and the last were withdrawn from circulation in December 2005. Within a short time, however, it had come to represent the public transport of the city.

Until recent years the trains of the underground were universally red. The pillars of the underground stations were also red, as were the famous underground roundels with blue and white lettering. On the Underground maps of Harry Beck, still in use, red is a dominant colour. In fact it could be claimed that the map of the London Underground resembles a painting of the capital by Piet Mondrian; with its bright colours and bold outlines, it manages to convey the stark contrasts and startling energy of the city, which it depicts in diagrammatic fashion.

St Paul's Cathedral silhouetted against a rich sunset
" 'Red' was the Cockney slang for gold itself, and is highly appropriate for a city established upon money and finance. " Image: M@/Londonist

The abstract pattern of convergence and confluence was created by Beck in 1931, to reflect the growing complexity of the network. He worked in the Signals Office, and it is believed that his essential design was based upon the electrical circuits that he devised for the current. That is why his completed pattern of lines is simple, clear and memorable, giving an air of rationality to what is in reality a haphazard and chaotic system. The city itself is identified as a series of horizontals, verticals and diagonals with the greatest emphasis on Central London. 'If you’re going underground,' he said, 'why bother with geography? It's not so important. Connections are the thing.'

Its significance as art is intimately linked with its assertive use of colour, combining a lucid code for following the network and a celebration of the city's variety. The District Line is coloured green because it begins in leafy West London and ends in the garden suburb of Upminster; it has stations in Turnham Green and Parsons Green, Wimbledon Park and Kew Gardens. The City and South London line, renamed the Northern Line in 1937, was coloured black because it was the first deep tube line and took its passengers lower than ever before. The Central line is coloured red to signify its route through the most powerful centre of London, from Oxford Street to St Paul's and the Bank.

Colours of London: A History by Peter Ackroyd, published by Frances Lincoln Publishers Ltd, RRP £25 (hardback)

Last Updated 14 October 2022

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