Monday, 20 May 2019

Don Letts' Record Box

From the excellent John Peel archives, a record box put together by the British film director, DJ and musician,  Don Letts.

Paul Rand Archive

The Letterform Archive has just received a significant accession of material from the personal archive of the American graphic designer Paul Rand. Above from an advert for Westinghouse. Archive HERE.  

Saturday, 18 May 2019

MV GAZANA (May 24th 1971)

On 24th May 1971, when I was 9 1/2, I went with my class from St Saviours primary school in Great Sutton to see a ship being launched at Cammell Lairds ship yard in Birkenhead. It was the single biggest man-made object I had ever seen close up. 

Neither the launch, nor the vessel, was particularly noteworthy. But to me this was a day I have never forgotten. 


Friday, 10 May 2019

Dimensioned (2019)

Dimensions.Guide is a reference database of dimensioned drawings documenting the standard measurements and sizes of everyday objects. It is a public research project founded by the architect Bryan Maddock. HERE.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Here Grows New York City (1609 - 2019)

A fantastic time lapse visualisation of the development of New York City, from 1609 to the present day. By Myles Zhang. The video is HERE.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Hand with Book (1506)

By the incomparable Albrecht Dürer (Nürnberg 1471 - 1528 Nürnberg), a study from 1506 of a hand gently holding open a thick book. Copyright the Albertina Museum Vienna: HERE.  

Tuesday, 30 April 2019

A woven web of guesses

The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us; but in the course of time,
Through seeking we may learn, and know things better

This, as we well may conjecture, resembles the truth.

But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor will he know it; neither of the gods
Nor yet of all things of which I speak.
And even if perchance he were to utter
The perfect truth, he would himself not know it;
For all is but a woven web of guesses.

A translation by Karl Popper of one of his favourite quotations from the pre-socratic philosopher Xenophanes. In The World of Parmenides: Essays on the Presocratic Enlightenment.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Popper by Bryan Magee (1973)

I first read about Karl Popper in about 1979 or 1980. I read about him in this superb slim overview by Bryan Magee, which had been published in 1973 or 1974. The book was one of the volumes in the Fontana Modern Masters series. The cover art was part of a bigger concept - and the particular example on the Popper book was a kinetic painting by Oliver Bevan.

The book is still easy to get from Abe or eBay. The story behind the cover art is HERE

Monday, 18 March 2019

Pace Layering: How Complex Systems Learn and Keep Learning (2018)

Here is a short piece by Stewart Brand on pace layers - an idea he developed in his book How Buildings Learn. He proposes six layers - all of which have a distinctive tick rate. The image above is a re-drawn illustration of the six layers and their relationships. His summary;
Fast learns, slow remembers.  Fast proposes, slow disposes.  Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous.  Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and by occasional revolution.  Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy.  Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.


Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Hummingbirds and flowers are quick, redwood trees are slow... (1986)

Hummingbirds and flowers are quick, redwood trees are slow, and whole redwood forests are even slower. 

Most interaction is within the same pace level  - hummingbirds and flowers pay attention to each other, oblivious to redwoods, who are oblivious to them.

A Hierarchical Concept of Ecosystems (1986).

Robert V. O'Neill, Donald Lee Deangelis, J. B. Waide & Timothy F. H. Allen

Friday, 8 March 2019

So It Goes (1969)

It is fifty years since Kurt Vonnegut Jr wrote Slaughterhouse Five. It is one of the most outstanding books I have ever read. Part novel, part memoir, part Science Fiction. It is unique. 

HERE is an exceptional essay by Kevin Powers in the New York Times on the 'Moral Clarity' of Slaughterhouse Five

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Staying Awake. Notes on the alleged decline of reading (2002)

Happy World Book Day!
The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you’re fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.

This is crucial, the fact that a book is a thing, physically there, durable, indefinitely reusable, an object of value.

From Staying Awake Notes on the alleged decline of reading - an essay by Ursula Le Guin from Harpers (HERE).

Image from Alphabet by Benjamin Rabier (HERE).

Monday, 4 March 2019

Orbis Typographicus (1970)

Orbis Typographicus is a set of twenty-nine letterpress broadsides, designed by Hermann Zapf and printed by Philip Metzger. The texts chosen by Zapf feature quotations on art, science, nature, and faith. It is an example of the highest of typographic arts.

Joshua Langman created a high-quality digital facsimile of Orbis Typographicus in 2013. It is excellent and includes a number of good explanatory essays. HERE

Sunday, 3 March 2019

3 Feet High and Rising (1989)

De La Soul is one of the most lyrically and musically creative hip-hop groups ever. The formed in 1987, and launched their debut studio album, 3 Feet High and Rising, 30 years ago today. Macy Gray likened them to the Beatles of hip-hop. 

The samples were mixed with simple technology, and great creativity. On the track Me Myself and I were samples from the following:

Funkadelic: (Not Just) Knee Deep (1979)
Ohio Players: Funky Worm (1972)
Edwin Birdsong: Rapper Dapper Snapper (1980)
Loose Ends: Gonna Make You Mine (1986)
Doug E. Fresh: The Original Human Beat Box (1984)

HERE is how they made it, and a full track listing can be found HERE on Discogs. 

Book of Kells (c. 800 AD)

The Book of Kells is a masterpiece of western calligraphy. It is written in a beautiful insular majuscule script, and is the work of at least three different scribes. The lettering is written in iron gall ink, and the colours used for the illumination use a wide range of substances, many of which were imported into Ireland.

The book has been scanned in its entirety and has been made available online by Trinity College Dublin. HERE

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

New York City Tree Alphabet (2019)

Katie Holten has created a New York City Tree Alphabet HERE.

Friday, 15 February 2019

The greatest song ever written (1984)

The brilliant Liverpool band Echo and the Bunnymen made their best album, Ocean Rain, in 1984. One of the singles off the album was Killing Moon. The lead singer Ian McCullock described this as the greatest song ever written. From the Guardian in 2015:
I love it all the more because I didn’t pore over it for days on end. One morning, I just sat bolt upright in bed with this line in my head: “Fate up against your will. Through the thick and thin. He will wait until you give yourself to him.” You don’t dream things like that and remember them. That’s why I’ve always half credited the lyric to God. It’s never happened before or since. I got up and started working the chords out. I played David Bowie’s Space Oddity backwards, then started messing around with the chords. By the time I’d finished, it sounded nothing like Space Oddity. 

More HERE.

Monday, 11 February 2019

i have nothing to say (2019)

Copyright Stanley Donwood - HERE.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Why we should build Software like we build houses (2015)

By the legendary Leslie Lamport:

Architects draw detailed plans before a brick is laid or a nail is hammered. Programmers and software engineers don't. Can this be why houses seldom collapse and programs often crash?

Blueprints help architects ensure that what they are planning to build will work. "Working" means more than not collapsing; it means serving the required purpose. Architects and their clients use blueprints to understand what they are going to build before they start building it.

But few programmers write even a rough sketch of what their programs will do before they start coding.


Friday, 8 February 2019

You’re probably using the wrong dictionary (2014)

This is a wonderful celebration by James Somers, of how stimulating a Dictionary can be. It takes as a starting point some of the writing advice of John McPhee, but also reminds me of the fact that aimlessly leafing through encyclopaedias and dictionaries is a surprisingly good way to find things out, and also perhaps as a way to directly catalyse a new idea or a new line of enquiry. 

The brilliant American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) was casually flicking through a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary in the early 1940’s when he stumbled upon the word serendipity.  This word had been coined in 1754, when the English gentleman Horace Walpole (1717 - 1797), wrote the following in a letter to his friend Horace Mann; 
This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called the three Princes of Serendip: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of...
Walpole describes serendipity as accidental sagacity, and points out that ‘... you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description’. Robert Merton’s discovery of the word serendipity led him to write a deeply insightful book on the role that serendipity plays in scientific discovery, The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. Modern familiarity with the concept can probably be traced back to Merton’s (serendipitous) re-discovery of the word in the 1940s.  

Essay HERE.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

The Force that Drives the Flower (1973)

Thanks to a tip from a recent Craig Mod essay - HERE is a superb essay by Annie Dillard from The Atlantic magazine.

A short excerpt:
Down at the root end of things, blind growth reaches astonishing proportions. So far as I know, only one real experiment has ever been performed to determine the extent and rate of root growth, and when you read the figures, you see why. I have run into various accounts of this experiment, and the only thing they don't reveal is how many lab assistants were blinded for life.
The experimenters studied a single grass plant, winter rye. They let it grow in a greenhouse for four months; then they gingerly spirited away the soil—under microscopes, I imagine—and counted and measured all the roots and root hairs. In four months the plant had set forth 378 miles of roots—that's about three miles a day—in 14 million distinct roots. This is mighty impressive, but when they get down to the root hairs, I boggle completely. In those same four months the rye plant created 14 billion root hairs, and those little things placed end to end just about wouldn't quit. In a single cubic inch of soil, the length of the root hairs totaled 6000 miles.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Stealth Research: Lack of peer-reviewed evidence from healthcare unicorns (2019)

A stimulating paper for anyone who works in, or works with, a bio-medical start-up company. The author's summary of their paper is as follows:

  • Start-ups are widely accepted as key vehicles of innovation and disruption in healthcare, positioned to make revolutionary discoveries.
  • Most of the highest valued start-ups in healthcare have a limited or non-existent participation and impact in the publicly available scientific literature.
  • The system of peer-reviewed publishing, while imperfect, is indispensable for validating innovative products and technologies in biomedicine.
  • Healthcare products not subjected to peer-review but rather based on internal data generation alone may be problematic and non-trustworthy.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Turn every goddam page (2019)

What is the humanities equivalent of the dedicated type of nit-picking, meticulous measurement and data analysis that is at the heart of every really profound scientific discovery? 

In a superb piece by the American journalist Robert Caro in the New Yorker, we find out that the equivalent for archive based investigative work is the rule that you must turn every goddam page.

This is what one of Caro's first editors told him at an early stage in his career:
He didn’t look up. After a while, I said tentatively, “Mr. Hathway.” I couldn’t get the “Alan” out. He motioned for me to sit down, and went on reading. Finally, he raised his head. “I didn’t know someone from Princeton could do digging like this,” he said. “From now on, you do investigative work.”
I responded with my usual savoir faire: “But I don’t know anything about investigative reporting.”
 Alan looked at me for what I remember as a very long time. “Just remember,” he said. “Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddam page.” He turned to some other papers on his desk, and after a while I got up and left.

Early sketches of PMN Caecilia (1983)

A short but interesting piece HERE on the early development of the beautiful and very readable slab-serif text face PMN Caecilia, which was designed by Peter Matthias Noordzij, and published by Linotype in 1991 .

Saturday, 26 January 2019

A Story of Ink & Steel (2015)

A Story of Ink & Steel is a beautiful short film by Fritz Schumann about a small collotype printing studio in Kyoto, which is the last in the world to specialise in this fine art printing technique. 

Friday, 25 January 2019

Mathematical Typography (1979)

From a lecture by Donald E. Knuth dedicated to George Pólya on his 90th birthday. This is one of the first explanations by Knuth of the TEX and METAFONT software tools which have over the last 40 years completely transformed how scientific papers with heavy mathematical content are composed and typeset. 

In his paper he explains how he hoped that TEX would one day be used:
Perhaps some day a typesetting language will become standardized to the point where papers can be submitted to the American Mathematical Society from computer to computer via telephone lines. Galley proofs will not be necessary, but referees and/or copy editors could send suggested changes to the author, and he could insert these into the manuscript, again via telephone.


Thursday, 24 January 2019

Knowledge which is stored in our libraries rather than in our heads (1971)

Putting your ideas into words, or better, writing them down makes an important difference. For in this way they become criticisable, Before this, they were part of ourselves. We may have had doubts. But we could not criticize them in the way in which we criticize a linguistically formulated proposition or, better still, a written report. Thus there is at least one important sense of "knowledge"—the sense of "linguistically formulated theories submitted to criticism." It is what I call "knowledge in the objective sense". Scientific knowledge belongs to it. It is knowledge which is stored in our libraries rather than in our heads.

From Bryan Magee (1971). Modern British Philosophy. Dialogues with A.J. Ayers, Stuart Hampshire, Alisdair MacIntyre, Alan Montefiore, David Pears, Karl Popper, Anthony Quinton, Gilbert Ryle, Ninian Smart, Peter Strawson, Geoffrey Warnock, Bernard Williams, Richard Wollheim.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Rose Reading Room New York Public Library (2016)

A still from a great time-lapse video of the re-shelving of the books in the Rose reading room of the New York Public library following a two-year renovation (HERE).

Saturday, 19 January 2019

On Patience (2000)

When you proceed too rapidly with something mistakes cascade, whereas when you proceed slowly the mistakes instruct. Gradual, incremental projects engage the full power of learning and discovery, and they are able to back out of problems. Gradually emergent processes get steadily better over time, while quickly imposed processes often get worse over time. 

An excerpt from Stewart Brand's book Clock Of The Long Now: Time and Responsibility - The Ideas Behind the World's Slowest Computer

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

John Dos Passos (1896 - 1970)

I was introduced to the work of John Dos Passos by my Dad. He told me, when I was a teenager, that the USA Trilogy by Dos Passos was his favourite book. It remains one of my favourites.

I have no idea when he had read it, though it was probably when he, my Uncle Terry, and their mate Pat Carmody lived together in London in the early 1950s (it was when he worked in a tyre factory near London that he first tasted ice-cold Coca-Cola from the classic bottle).

HERE is a great piece in the Paris Review on Dos Passos, that made me remember how good Dos Passos' work is.  

Friday, 4 January 2019

Brian Eno's definition of Scenius (1996).

Below is an extract from a letter sent by Brian Eno to Dave Stewart, included as one of the appendices of his diary: A Year with swollen Appendices (1996). 
A few years ago I came up with a new word. I was fed up with the old art-history idea of genius - the notion that gifted individuals turn up out of nowhere and light the way for all the rest of us dummies to follow. I became (and still am) more and more convinced that the important changes in cultural history were actually the product of very large numbers of people and circumstances conspiring to make something new. I call this ‘scenius’ - it means ‘the intelligence and intuition of a whole cultural scene’. It is the communal form of the concept of genius. This word is now starting to gain some currency - the philosopher James Ogilvy uses it in his most recent book.
Now I would love to be involved in making something to explore this idea - to support my thesis that new ideas come into being through a whole host of complicated circumstances, accidents, small incremental contributions made in isolation (as well as gifted individuals, of course) that in total add up to something qualitatively different: something nobody has ever seen before and which could not have been predicted from the elements that went to make it up.
One of the reasons I am attached to this idea is that it is capable of dignifying many more forms of human innovation under its umbrella than the old idea of ‘genius’, which exemplifies what I call the ‘Big Man’ theory of history - where events are changed by the occasional brilliant or terrible man, working in heroic isolation. I would prefer to believe thaf the world is constantly being remade by all its inhabitants: that it is a cooperative enterprise. Folk arts and popular arts have always been criticized because they tend to exhibit evolutionary, incremental change - because they lack sufficient ‘Big Men’ making shockingly radical and unpopular steps into the future. Instead the pop scene carries much of its audience with it - something the fine arts people are inclined to distrust: the secret question is, ‘How can it possibly be good if so many people like it?’
Of course it would be stupid to pretend that everyone’s contribution is therefore equal to every other’s, and I would never claim that. But I want to say that the reality of how culture and ideas evolve is much closer to the one we as pop musicians are liable to accept - of a continuous toing and froing of ideas and imitations and misconstruals, of things becoming thinkable because they are suddenly technically possible, of action and reaction, than the traditional fine-art model which posits an inspired individual sorting it all out for himself and then delivering it unto a largely uncomprehending and ungrateful world.
There are a few recent cultural moments where the scenius process is particularly clear: 1905-1915 in Russia; Dadaism in France; the experimental music scene in America through the late fifties and early sixties; the Anglo-American psychedelic scene of the sixties; punk in 1975-8 (the eclectic and cooperative nature of which is documented in Jon Savage’s book England’s Dreaming); and then perhaps something as specific as the evolution of ‘adobe style' in South Western American architecture, or even the mid to late eighties at Goldsmiths’! It could also be interesting to include some scenes that were less specifically artistic - for Instance, the history of the evolution of the Internet. In all of these sequences, there are sufficient gifted and eccentric individuals to satisfy anyone’s hero appetite, but the interesting thing is how they were fed and supported by a vigorous and diffuse cultural scene. That’s the process I would like to explore.

Available in its entirety HERE.

The (surprisingly long) history of the cut-up technique (2018)

From Austin Kleon's blog, a patchy but entertaining history of cut-up techniques applied in writing and music. It includes some examples of Caleb Whitefoord's cross-reading pieces.  


Art is everything that you don’t have to do (2015).

Art is everything that you don’t have to do.

From  the BBC Music John Peel Lecture by Brian Eno, which took place at the British Library as a part of the Radio Festival 2015.

The full transcript is HERE

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Home Life in Tokyo By Jukichi Inouye (1910)

The author of this volume set out to communicate to western readers some of the day-to-day realities of Japanese culture;
I am aware that there are already many excellent works on Japan which may be read with great profit; but as their authors are most of them Europeans or Americans, and naturally look at Japanese life and civilisation from an occidental point of view, it occurred to me that notwithstanding the super-abundance of books on Japan, a description of Japanese life by a native of the country might not be without interest.
The image shows a set of Hanafuda (literally flower-cards) which are used for games of chance that had originally became popular in Japan in the Edo period (1603-1867). The full set of cards are composed of twelve suits, each of four cards, with each suit matching a month of the year. The imagery for each suit is based on a flower, tree or grass that typically blooms in that month.

Matsu (Pine - January)
Ume (Plum blossom - February)
Sakura (Cherry blossom - March)
Fuji (Wisteria - April)
Ayame (Iris - May)
Botan (Peony - June)
Hagi (Bush clover - July)
Susuki (Silver grass - August)
Kiku (Chrysanthemum - September)
Momiji (Maple - October)
Yanagi (Willow - November)
Kiri (Paulownia - December)

The Hanafuda are descended from European playing cards that were introduced to Japan in the 16th century by Portuguese missionaries and sailors. 

These cards are smaller than a typical western playing card, but they are much thicker and more visually sophisticated. Each suit incorporates cards of different ranks, indicated with coloured ribbons or cultural allusions. Reading across left to right the top-most cards are called: Crane; Nightingale; Curtain; Cuckoo; Bridge; Butterflies; Boar; Moon; Sake Cup; Deer; Rain; Phonenix. Other cards have distinctive, but almost abstract, patterns. For example, the gaji card on the bottom row for November depicts the strong storms and hurricanes of this time of the year - the black and red shapes being the stylised outline of a tornado or waterspout. This card is often used in games as a wild-card.

Although Hanafuda cards were designed in the Edo period, many of the motifs that are used make allusion to the much earlier Heian period (794 - 1185) of Japanese culture. In his book Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons, Haruo Shirane notes that;     
With the exception of the peony, which entered the poetic canon in the Edo period, all the images are from classical poetry of the Heian period and reflect urban commoners' knowledge of the poetic and cultural associations of the months.
Some of the pairings of symbols shown on the cards are considered to be particularly harmonious; pine & crane, plum blossom & warbler, cuckoo & wisteria, and butterfly & peony.  

The Hanafuda are a concentrated visual summary of many aspects of Japanese culture. The top card of the Willow suit refers to a well known story about perseverance that features a willow, a leaping frog and the famous Heian era calligrapher Ono no Michikaze (894 - 966), one of the founders of Japanese style calligraphy. 

Scanned copy of Original HERE.

Image Caption: A complete set of Hanafuda cards arranged left to right in month order (January - December). The top row shows the highest value cards in each suit.


Baird, M.C. (2001). Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. Rizzoli, New York.

Shirane, H. (2012). Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature, and the Arts. Columbia University Press. New York.

What are Computers For?

Peninsula living (2015)

Peninsula means almost-island; a tongue or languet of land that is not-quite-surrounded by water. Peninsulas are otherworldly places that are neither mainland nor island. Concatenated together, their names form a lyrical prose-poem;

Monterey, Pilio, Mols,
Anaga, Dingle, Yamal.
Baja, Pinellas,
Natkusiak, Scania, Grenen.

The Wirral peninsula is roughly rectangular, about fifteen miles long and seven wide. At high tide, three sides of the rectangle are bounded by an unbroken stretch of water incorporating the River Dee, the Irish Sea and the River Mersey. The tide dominates the weather on the peninsula to such an extent that locals talk with pride of its beneficial micro climate. Pride is a common failing of peninsula dwellers the world over.

The psycho-geography of peninsula living is in its infancy. No doubt a sensitive enough observer would discern a gradient in the psychological effect that a peninsula has on its inhabitants. Those who live at the base of the peninsula are almost main landers. Those living at its head are effectively islanders. Much further from the towns and cities of the mainland, their lives and daily rituals are dominated by the tidal rhythms of the sea. It is only in recent history that it has become easier for those at the head of a peninsula to make a journey by land than by sea.

Life at the head of a peninsula is a life in the transition zone between sea and land. Ambiguous. Disorienting. Tempting though it is to always look out, away from the mainland, a living here needs to be made from what is available on the land behind and the sea in front.

Image of Caldy Hill from HERE.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Happy New Year (2019)

Monday, 31 December 2018

Some Do, Some Don't: There's not much Difference: It's more complicated that that (2018)

Many of the founding principles of physics as a science are built on frameworks and ideas that have been around for hundreds of years. These 'laws of nature' and working principles, along with much more recent speculation, theory, observation and experiment are so attractive as a body of human knowledge that for science, we often try to read physic(al) science. Researchers in other fields often show signs of physics envy - with biologists and social scientists being most guilty of this type of behaviour (it is interesting perhaps to note that chemists, though less in the limelight these days that they used to be, on the whole are rarely envious of physicists).

Physics envy is a most wasteful emotional condition. The simple fact is that no other scientific field will have the same structure or dynamics as physics, because they study different phenomena, subject to different laws. In addition, many of the other sciences are so very young compared with physics that their relative immaturity does not help. I suspect that time, and the application of serious levels of effort and hard work, will be one of the most important factors required to create more solid foundations for psychology, sociology, ecology, biology and genetics. Unfortunately for everyone, including the tax-payers who fund the majority of scientific research, modern science is performed in a state of perpetual hyper-competitiveness. Although this is an understandable need from the point of view of the career development of individual scientists, for the overall health of human knowledge it is corrosive.

As an example, HERE, is a summary by Ed Yong in The Atlantic of the results of ManyLabs 2 - a serious attempt to replicate the findings of 28 well known psychological experiments. Unsurprisingly, half of them are not-reproducible. What is perhaps more interesting, is the author's take on the study: 
Ironically enough, it seems that one of the most reliable findings in psychology is that only half of psychological studies can be successfully repeated.
From this, I suggest that it is clear enough that we might want to formulate Yong's Law of psychology:
No more than one-half of the results of published psychological studies will ever be replicated.



The Colour of London, Historic, Personal, & Local. By William J Loftie & Yoshio Markino (1910)

In June 1892, Arthur Conan Doyle published The Adventure of the Copper Beeches in the Strand Magazine. The tale is set in the early 1890's and features his famous detective Sherlock Holmes. The story begins in 221B Baker Street: 
It was a cold morning of the early spring, ... A thick fog rolled down between the lines of dun-coloured houses, and the opposing windows loomed like dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreaths. 

Thick pea-souper fogs were a common experience in London throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras. They formed when natural mists and  fogs from the Thames estuary mixed with the smoke from millions of domestic and industrial coal fires. The distinctive colouring of the fogs is thought to be due to the dissolution of coal tars from smoke that is typical of incomplete coal combustion. 

London fog gave rise to a range of unique and dynamic optical experiences, many of which were commented on, or recorded by, artists and writers. The French impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) often mentioned in his letters the unique optical effects of London fog. Although his multiple paintings of the Houses of Parliament, Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross Bridge were reworked for many years after he first painted them, they remain important visual records of his attempts to capture the fleeting effects of colour and light caused by London fog.  Monet commented that `... objects change in appearance in a London fog more and quicker than in any other atmosphere'. Other artistic responses to British fog include the Manchester cityscapes that were painted by the French impressionist Pierre Adolphe Valette (1876-1942), who taught at the Manchester School of Art between 1906 and 1920. 

The Japanese artist Yoshio Markino (1869-1956) arrived in London in 1897, after having spent four years studying art in San Francisco. Markino was captivated by the mist and fog he found in both San Francisco and London and developed a technique for soaking his paper prior to watercolour painting,  so that he could paint the backgrounds of his pictures whilst the paper was still damp: 
London in mist is far above my own ideal ... Whether it is unhealthy or not, is not the question for me. The colour and its effect are most wonderful. I think London without mists would be like a bride without a trousseau .. The London mist attracts me so that I do not feel I could live in any other place but London.
Markino stayed in London for forty years and became well known in artistic and bohemian circles. He used his outsider's view of London to render even the most ordinary of scenes as mysterious and beautiful. In this painting, the structure of London's Tower Bridge is shown at high tide with a colour contrast softened by evening light and London fog. 

The Japanese essayist and poet Yone Noguchi (1875-1947) became an important bridge between the traditions of Japanese literary culture and the West. Noguchi lived in New York for a number of years before visiting London in 1903 where he stayed with Yoshio Markino. He shared with Markino a keen appreciation of London fog: 
I do not quarrel with the Englishmen when they hate the fogs; but I should like to impress on them their strange beauty ... I often thought of the London fogs as of a great artistic problem ... The beauty of the fogs can only appeal to one whose aestheticism is older than life; their grey effect is a far more living thing than darkness or death.
Yoshio Markino created a large body of work based on his life in London. His watercolours are recognisably of London landmarks, but rendered with an aesthetic reminiscent of Japanese wood block prints.

Scanned copy of Original HERE.

Image Caption: The Tower Bridge


Noguchi, Y. (1915). The story of Yone Noguchi. G.W. Jacobs. Philadelphia.

Novakov, A. & Novakov, T. (2006). The Chromatic Effects of Late Nineteenth-Century London Fog. Literary London Journal. Vol. 4 Number 2.

Rodner, W.S. (2011). Edwardian London through Japanese Eyes. Brill,  Leiden.

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