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Guest Projects

Drawing the Lines


I think of the Tube as a living organism. A city underground. Every day, 3 million people make journeys on trains through this subterranean street map of tunnels, walkways, escalators, and stations. We are individuals, and yet we are also anonymous, moving like shoals of fish, a murmuration of starlings, or a colony of ants.

For the most part, we all know the unwritten rules on how to behave to get from place to place, squashed closely together but apart. It is this anonymity, and the sense of movement, that has always fascinated me about the London Tube.

Piccadilly Line Sketchbook - Down into the abyss
Piccadilly Line Sketchbook - Down into the Abyss

There is no other underground system quite like it. We move through the network avoiding eye contact, keeping patient and self-contained in all the bustle of colour-coded lines and underground streets.

I've always wanted to draw here. Impetus for commencing this experimental series was provided by a residency at Guest Projects, Yinka Shonibare's studio in Hackney. This provided me with a long white wall in which to gradually build up sets of sketches done of people on the various lines on the Underground.

I started off thinking I would just draw feet. Just about close enough to see, and no eye contact. Partly this was a wish to avoid confrontation or intrusion into other passengers' privacy. Partly it was lack of confidence about whether I could see enough to say something meaningful in this public but intensely private space. After a shaky start I gradually got braver, started moving up the body a little, finding passengers were for the most part too preoccupied with their screens and phones to be bothered by me. I wasn't interested in making real portraits, but, instead, capturing the essence of somebody's pose in just a few lines.

Each Tube line has its own character. There are sections where passengers are either squashed like sardines, or criss-crossing frenetically through labyrinths of tunnels. In contrast, towards the end of the line, I would find myself the only person in a carriage travelling through London's outskirts.

Whilst living in London, travelling on the Tube has been part of my everyday life. Hardly a day goes by without me going up to town or up and down the Northern Line. I have done my share of commutes across London, standing room only for an hour and a half at a time. My drawings are fast and furious, made in pen and ink on coloured paper. Each line is colour-coded with a roughly painted background wash – red for Central, dark blue for Piccadilly, silver for Jubilee. Sometimes the drawings are done in batches along a long stretch of one journey. Other times they are single images observed over multiple trips at different times of the day.

This series has turned into a longer-term project. Gradually the drawings are developing into a collection of observations across the network, giving a flavour of daily life on the Underground throughout the day and night.

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