The challenges of implementing Henry Beck’s unpublished prototypes
by Maxwell J Roberts, 2008

Beck London map drawing
Beck’s All-London Railways Map, 1939

Henry Beck submitted a drawing to London Transport in 1939 that showed all of London’s railways as a diagram. This was his most ambitious project yet but was rejected, apparently it was too complex, and the Second World War put paid to further development. Implementing a drawing of a map often raises many questions. Beck’s original was probably intended to prove the concept, rather then be a definitive first draft. Even if his idea had been embraced, what could have been the end result?

Beck’s drawing contained many errors: lines missing, stations which were closed, and lines which had not seen a passenger train for many years. These would obviously have been corrected, and sometimes this would have enabled the design to be improved. In creating this map, I have taken advantage of opportunities to tidy up the design, as would have taken place 70 years ago, but the basic configuration is nonetheless Henry Beck’s.

Beck’s original showed the Underground with thick lines and bold station names, whereas the mainline railways were shown as thinner lines, undifferentiated in the background. His coverage was rather selective, including Aylesbury in the northwest, but omitting, for example, Sutton, Upminster, Croydon and Dartford. Would the mainline railway companies have been content with being pushed into the background with their major destinations absent? The LMS, LNER, and GWR all had close links with the Underground. The LNER ran some of the world’s most intensive steam commuter services. The vast Southern Electric was one of the world’s great electrified networks. I decided to show the mainline railways with equal emphasis, differentiating them using their corporate colours. Major destinations have been added in east and south London. We can only guess at how Beck would have configured these, but I have tried to ensure that they blend in.

Which railways to include is also difficult to resolve. Beck included the London Transport New Works Programme in full, but the Second World War delayed much of this, and some plans were abandoned forever. Many mainline railways and stations were closed permanently during the Second World War. Omitting these would have taken the map too far from Beck’s original and removed much of its interest. The outcome above is really a fantasy map, based on aspirations which were dashed by the Second World War. It shows the London Transport New Works Programme in full, along with its implications for the mainline railways. Many mainline stations and lines were closed permanently almost as soon as the Second World War commenced. Removing the least remunerative stations from the network was probably another aspiration of the railway companies.

Beck London map poster

My final version of this poster is based upon extensive research into timetables and maps from the late 1930s. By this time, many of the more esoteric services had been pared right back, running only sporadically if at all. These have been omitted. [In a similar vein, by the late 1930s Underground maps had long ceased to indicate, for example, that through services occasionally ran from Watford to Rickmansworth.] Avoiding loops have also not been shown. For example, from a passenger’s point of view, a train bypassing Lewisham is no different from a train not stopping at North Dulwich. The former involves a different route, the latter merely involves the driver continuing to drive the train. Also, note that station names of the time were often surprisingly inconsistent, with even publicity issued by the owning company, such as timetables and maps, often not agreeing precisely, especially for long station names.

Inevitably, realising any historic prototype map is speculative, and there can never be a definitive implementation. What I hope to have achieved is a design in keeping with the scale and spirit of Beck’s undertaking, and which captures the atmosphere of the times, when Britain’s railways still gave the impression of pride and confidence.

The original drawing can be seen in Mr Beck’s Underground Map by Ken Garland (1994, Capital Transport). My own book, Underground Maps After Beck, has an earlier attempt at realising this design, closer to Beck’s original attempt, and therefore further from the outcome most likely to be published had the concept been adopted.

Beck Paris map drawing
Beck’s Paris Metro Map, 1951

Henry Beck created at least two attempts at a diagram of the Paris Metro network. His second attempt, in colour and now held by the London Transport Museum, is the basis for this poster. Henry Beck’s first drawing has been reproduced elsewhere (Mr Beck’s Underground Map by Ken Garland, 1994, Capital Transport). It was submitted to the RATP (the Paris transport authority) in the late 1940s, and rejected for reasons not entirely clear. There is no evidence that the second attempt was submitted to the RATP.

Mapping the Paris Metro is a particularly difficult project for any graphic designer to undertake. The dense network of highly interconnected lines demands great skill in showing them with balance and clarity. Part of the difficulty arises because lines cross Paris at distinctly awkward angles. Deciding at which of the permitted angles to draw them (horizontal, vertical, or 45 degrees) needs some care, and inappropriate choices can result in all sorts of unwanted side effects.

For both attempts, Beck made Line 1 his major axis, but as a 45 degree diagonal slicing across the map (in reality it runs at around 25 degrees to horizontal). This results in awkward compression around Bastille and wide open space around Etoile. Even so, to the untrained eye of a British observer, this can look like a clever solution. On the other hand, to a Parisian, the entire City of Paris had practically been rolled onto its side. With the lack of clear colour coding for the Paris network, the Paris RATP officials must have found the map deeply disorientating and confusing, and the many errors on the map would have given them an easy basis for rejecting it.

Beck Paris map poster

Realising Beck’s second attempt was fairly straightforward. He had managed to merge Montparnasse-Bienvenue, but two nearby stations vanished; Vavin and Edgar Quinet. Adding these required some reconfiguration. Annoyingly, Beck’s many spelling mistakes tended to shorten station names, so that correcting them caused problems fitting them in. I dealt with this by using a condensed typeface. Beck’s choice of colours did not match contemporary official maps, so these were altered. Finally, the Sceaux Line needed to be added to give the map a more authentic appearance.

One of the hardest parts of implementing the map was choosing the right typeface. Unlike London, the RATP had not by that point evolved a comprehensive corporate identity, and maps tended to be hand lettered in a style very evocative of Paris of the period. The problem is that implementing hand lettering is very difficult to do convincingly on a computer. Look at any Paris Metro map of the period, and you will see that no two letters are quite alike. They might agree in their general forms, but fine details such as line thicknesses and precise forms vary. This makes creating a satisfactory computerised typeface almost impossible. Selecting a condensed typeface contemporary with the map was also an unsatisfactory solution. Univers had not been developed at that time, Gill Sans would have been unthinkable, and none of the various Grotesk fonts (early sans serif) quite matched the letterforms used on the hand-lettered maps, capital R, G, and Q being particularly difficult to match well, with C and S also causing trouble. The solution, a modern typeface surprisingly close to the hand lettering, was discovered by accident after extensive searching. We have to imagine that the RATP decided to develop a typeface closely based on the hand lettering of their designers, an event possibly no more far-fetched than their adopting Beck’s design for their network.

This version edited and formatted 20/6/2017