Victory line

Peter Watts on a small but fitting tribute to the role of public transport in the Blitz

Under Attack
London Transport Museum
The 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Blitz was covered heavily by the media, but the nation's museums have been quieter in their commemorations. The London Transport Museum's small but touching "Under Attack" is one of the few exhibitions to look at the subject.
Perhaps that is to be expected. We may still talk reverently about the "Blitz spirit" or evoke it at times of national crisis, but, sadly and surprisingly, no London government or mayor has ever seen fit to erect a statue to commemorate those citizens who suffered the 57 consecutive nights of bombardment by German planes in the winter of 1940-41. All the same, David Bownes, head curator at the London Transport Museum, expected more competition from other institutions when he planned the exhibition, which is why he took a niche approach, looking at the Blitz and public transport in collaboration with other transport museums in Coventry and Dresden.

The exhibition has posters and photographs looking at all three cities, but the spotlight falls brightest on London. The Tube stations - eventually - became a place for Londoners to shelter and the capital's transport system in general became a not entirely manufactured symbol of London's, and Britain's, indomitable spirit.

All this makes London's experience hard to compare with those of Dresden and Coventry, where remembrance of aerial bombardments have no fond folklore memories to fall back on. The truth of even the London Blitz has long been debated, but its undeniable propaganda value is carefully covered in this exhibition. The best example comes in the section on Tube shelters, which features two near-identical photographs of cockneys cowering in miserable conditions beneath the streets. In the first image, faces are strained and lined; in the second, they are all smiles. No guessing which one was released to the newspapers.

The exhibition also shows that such propaganda wasn't aimed purely at the home front. Another intention was to show potential allies how well London was holding out. One of Walter Spradbery's posters, The Proud City, a stylised image of St Paul's under bright blue sky with bomb debris obscuring the foreground, was reprinted in numerous countries and is shown here in Arabic translation. But perhaps most affecting are the sketches by the Polish artist Feliks Topolski of Londoners sheltering in the Tube. These are stark and bleak, in charcoal, but still reflect some of the stoicism that is the defining theme of both official and unofficial art of the Blitz - a quality that the government was so eager to exploit.

Until 31 March 2011. Details:

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut