Harry Beck - More than a Map

Harry Beck’s name is synonymous with the London Underground Tube Map. Originally considered too radical it's now considered a design icon. But there is more to the man than the map

Portrait of Henry Charles Beck (1965-01-01)TfL Corporate Archives

The Man behind the design

The diagrammatic London Underground Tube Map is recognised throughout the world as a design classic. The man behind the original was Harry Beck, a draughtsman working for the Underground Electric Railway Company

Harry Beck's sketch for the Underground map (1931-01-01)TfL Corporate Archives

Within our collection we have a reproduction of his original illustration. It shows how he simplified the message of the map, overruling conventions of distance or geography, to produce a structure of clean intersecting coloured lines akin to an electric circuit diagram

Map of London's Underground Railways 1931 (1931-06-15) by F H StingemoreTfL Corporate Archives

Compare it to the design of the pocket map from 1931

Beck had worked on the initial design independently and when he initially offered it to the publicity office they turned it down.

The Underground Straight Eight All-Electric Skit-Set Circuit Diagram (1933-03-01)TfL Corporate Archives

Sadly, we don't have a “first edition” of the map published in January 1933, but whilst researching we came across a cartoon by Beck in which he spoofs his newly published map

Underground Pocket Map 1938, London Passenger Transport Board, 1938-04-30, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
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Underground Map 1938, London Passenger Transport Board, 1938-06-15, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
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       Maps from the 1930s don't include any attribution to Beck, but it's testament to the radical redesign that at a glance you can identify the “Beck” fundamentals. The above map is however not his design, his principles had been interpreted by another commissioned artist and the earliest “Beck style” map we hold, from 1938, is actually the work of Hans Schleger

Underground map 1943 (1943-01-01)TfL Corporate Archives

The first attributed copy of a map by Harry Beck we hold is from 1943

Train Omnibus Tram (TOT): Our New Cover (1933-01-01)TfL Corporate Archives

Staff Magazine Cover

Beck’s talents weren't limited to the map.  

He was responsible for the redesign of the cover for the staff magazine, which included a “wheel-device  [that] symbolises all our official business and includes the letters TOT [Train Omnibus Tram]." 

Train Omnibus Tram (TOT): Our New Cover (1933-01-01)TfL Corporate Archives

"The slight serration on the inner rim suggests a cog-wheel representing the Engineering Departments of our organisation.” 

Children's Corner Page Heading (1933-01-01) by Harry BeckTfL Corporate Archives

Illustrator

The first illustration we found in the staff magazine that we can attribute to Beck is a design for the heading for the regular children’s corner feature from March 1932. The design is attributed by his initials HCB

Children's Corner : The Elfin Tube (1932-12-01)TfL Corporate Archives

One of the children's stories Harry illustrates is "The Elfin Tube", which is packed with images of toads in top hats and tails, tubes with legs, and pipe smoking dogs

Cartoon: "This Flat to Let" (1932-11-01) by Harry BeckTfL Corporate Archives

Cartoonist

He is also quick to establish his reputation and popularity as a cartoonist - “give your very clever cartoonist, Mr Beck, one full page every month.”
The first signed cartoon is from November 1932, with his response to the poster campaign, “Why not live on the Underground.” 

Cartoon: The Lock Nescalator, Harry Beck, 1934-01-01, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
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He became a regular contributor

Cartoon: Is this South Acton?, Harry Beck, 1937-01-01, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
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Cartoon: Platform Guard Holiday, Harry Beck, 1933-07-01, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
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Cartoon: Bus Stopping at "The Marquis of Granby", Harry Beck, 1938-06-01, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
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Caricature of London Electric Railway ticket punch, Harry Beck, 1934-01-01, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
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Cartoon: Hi Guv'nor: 'Old Up a Minute, Harry Beck, 1933-01-01, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
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Article: On Route 39 Years (1946-07-01)TfL Corporate Archives

Portrait Artist

He was also a portrait artist celebrating well known faces like Lord Ashfield, but also unsung heroes, a fact we discovered when researching Staff Acts of Bravery on the Home Front during WW2

Article: The Off Duty Message, 1946-08-01, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
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Portrait Sketch of Lord Ashfield, Harry Beck, 1935-11-01, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
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Article: Mr Ernie Shand, 1946-07-01, From the collection of: TfL Corporate Archives
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Beck remained the principal designer of the Underground Map between 1933-1959, retaining a sense of ownership that the organisation didn't appear to share. 

Underground Map 1965 (1965-06-15) by London Transport BoardTfL Corporate Archives

He was replaced in 1960 and credits for updated designs went to new designers including Harold Hutchinson and Paul Garbutt

When Harry Beck died in 1974 his contribution to the tube map was underappreciated by both the organisation and the public. His reputation and the significance of his work was restored largely by the efforts of his friend, the designer Ken Garland.

Underground map June 2017 (2017-06-01)TfL Corporate Archives

Today all TfL maps include the following credit to ensure that Harry Beck’s name is synonymous with our iconic Tube Map

Credits: Story

Story compiled by TfL from information in records at the Transport for London Corporate Archives. The Corporate Archives seeks to preserve and make accessible records, not to interpret them. A wider range of material is available for physical consultation.


Permission is granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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