Monday 31 December 2018

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.