The first line was opened in 1863. Then, for some time, the expansion was slow, with trains running through open cuttings. By 1890, though, the world’s first-ever deep-level Tube-railway was complete and it had ushered in a new era. “Soon an enormous subterranean transit network extended beneath the metropolis,” writes David Ashford, a lecturer in English at the City University of London, in his monograph London Underground: A Cultural Geography (2013). He explains further:
The Tube-network was perhaps the first example of what French ethnologist Marc Augé has termed non–lieu: spaces such as the motorway, supermarket and airport lounge that are compelled to interpret their relation to the invisible landscapes they traverse through the media of signs, maps and verbal messages. Like these similarly mediated spaces, the London Underground is a Plato’s cave in which the shadow of every product or landmark in the world might appear in the space of a six-foot poster glued to the wall. The Underground is a transitional form, linking the alienated space of production created by the Industrial Revolution to the fully virtual spaces of late capitalism that emerged following the Cold War.
This earliest proper “non-lieu” – the Tube – is the lifeblood of London city. Estranged from natural topography, artificially ensconced in the earth, the elaborate network operates to serve the ever-active market forces above. The slightest malfunction can affect the best-laid plans.
The Tube, through which all sorts of people engaged in all manner of enterprises pass all the time, is London-based painter and printmaker Gail Brodholt’s beloved subject. Born in South London to a Norwegian father and a mother from Trinidad, Gail is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers (RE). “I suppose what I’m really interested in is those unconsidered and unnoticed places that people pass through. They are on their way to somewhere else, presumably more important – on the escalators, on the tube, train station platforms, motorways…” she says, echoing the young Slovakian artist Marek Jarotta (see the post “Non-Places” from August 10, 2016).
“These places,” she continues, “have a certain transient quality with people passing through all the time, but on the other hand, they are often these vast monolithic structures which are going to be there long after we have gone. There is also that feeling of anticipation when you start a journey – that feeling of not knowing quite what will happen along the way. There may be an adventure ahead, or just a mundane, every-day journey, but there is always a possibility of something exciting or unexpected happening. I like the sense we all have that between here and there anything can happen. Although, of course, it almost always doesn’t.”
Although many of her linocuts and paintings explore the experience of the Tube, Gail does love to capture the much older “over-ground” system. In both the mediums, she shows the passage of seasons and the daily hours. Strangers collide and then go their separate ways during winter or summer, morning and evening. People rush with bags, read magazines and novels or simply stand alone, waiting. The artworks represent a contemporary urban reality but they are given a refreshingly vintage effect. They look like illustrations from a book from the early 1900s.
On her influences and sources of inspiration, Gail says, “I spend a lot of time looking at all sorts of visual art and at the moment, I’m particularly drawn to Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) and in particular his landscape paintings, a surprising number of which are urban scenes. I also admire the work of such artists as Julian Trevelyan (1910-1988), Michael Rothenstein (1908-1993), Edward Bawden (1903-1989), Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981) and Joan Eardley (1921-1963).”
Precise in their architectural details and chromatic shadings, Gail’s works are also poignant on a human level. The modern mood is beautifully and accurately depicted here. The loneliness that emerges out of the dynamic existence is especially unmistakable.
Why a combination of prints and paintings? Gail explains: “I studied fine art and have a degree in Painting. At art school, our first year consisted of a term in the painting studios, a term in the sculpture studios and a term in the printmaking studios. Although I ended up specialising in painting, I very much enjoyed that early printmaking experience. Later on, I went back to printmaking and was particularly drawn to linocutting. These days I still practice both painting and printmaking because I feel that each process informs and enhances the other. Painting is very much more immediate and, being a more flexible medium, you can get closer to the image you have in your head, whereas printmaking has the craft element which means that you have to make allowances for the limitations of the process.”
At the moment, Gail is concerned with the road network and it will be her subject in the near future. The same dynamics apply there – the same sense of anticipation and the unknown. “I’m interested in the fact that roads and cars are such an ever-present part of contemporary life,” says the artist, “but are air-brushed out of modern landscape painting in a nostalgic way. My view is that, in the same way that trains and underground stations have a special kind of beauty, so, too, does the road network – something I’m trying to bring out in my work.”
Gail Brodholt has published two lithographs in collaboration with the Curwen Studio. She currently holds the post of Honorary Curator of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. You can find her on her website (www.gailbrodholt.com), Facebook page (Gail Brodholt, painter printmaker), Twitter profile (@), Instagram account (www.instagram.com/gbrodholt) and YouTube channel (Gail Brodholt – Painter Printmaker). Images used with permission.