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  • Mist & Mystery in Pre-1914 London
  • Stanley Weintraub
Nicholas Freeman . Conceiving the City: London, Literature, and Art 1870–1914. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 240 pp. $95.00 [End Page 221]

The clean air act of 1956 was in its early stages of implementation during my first research trip to London. To reduce the smoke and particulate matter that blighted the environment and produced what became known as the Great Smog of 1952—the tipping point in the generations of pernicious London fog—the law began to require cleansed zones in which only smokeless fuels could be burned. I recall often-fogbound Bedford Square, near the British Museum, where pedestrians walked riskily beside tortoise-slow cars and cabs to guide drivers through the streets. Never as romantic at ground level as it was on canvas, Jimmy Whistler's veiled cityscape was finally disappearing.

While the creeping fog had been real, London's dank darkness was metaphor. When Salvation Army "General" William Booth published his polemic In Darkest London in 1890, he was paralleling Henry Morton Stanley's best-selling 1879 account of fetid Africa, The Dark Continent, and referring to the "foul and fetid" slums of London and other cities long degraded by poverty and overpopulation. Titles emphasizing "dark" and "night" linked the omnipresent fog with impoverished urban squalor, among them Margaret Oliphant's Land of Darkness (1887), the necropolis of James Thomson's City of Dreadful Night (1899), Joseph Conrad's two-rivers linkage of the Thames and the Congo in Heart of Darkness (1899), Clarence Rook's The Hooligan Nights (1899), Margaret Harkness's In Darkest London (1889), and A. Osborne Jay's Life in Darkest London (1891).

In his ornately witty Ten O'Clock Lecture, Whistler (the key figure to Freeman) described the fogs of London as a "kindly veil"—not because they concealed unpleasant realities, which they indeed did, but for the liberating artistic opportunities to reveal a hidden beauty, make the prosaic mysterious, and transfigure the commonplace into poetry. Whistler's soft focus may have been inspired, some critics believe (Freeman among them), by Théophile Gautier's Une Journée à Londres (1842), where city smoke is described as veiling "the meanness of buildings" and imparting "mystery and vagueness" to objects. There is some similar language, but Whistler was then eight years old. More likely, myopia contributed to his aesthetics, as it did to his post-1880 etchings of Venice and London, often exquisitely detailed at the center but increasingly spare as each image radiates to the borders. That technique, described by Hermann von Helmholtz in an essay translated into English in 1873, may not have inspired Whistler's nearsighted art as much as explain it. [End Page 222]

As a reaction from grimy observational authenticity, impressionist art and writing was authentic in its own fashion, offering an imaginative vision of London rather than its surface actuality, or what was considered Dickensian actuality at the time of his death in 1870—where Freeman begins. He surveys the parallel realities, each selective, of the enclosed world of Darwinian struggle as seen in such fiction as that of George Gissing about the "ignobly decent," and even in Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmesian "exact knowledge"of upward-striving London, with impressionism's attempts to capture the feel, pace and dynamism of the unruly, modernizing metropolis. Even Whistler's colorful storefronts, free of fogs in his last decade, were designs, as he claimed were his earlier portraits. The contrasting conceptions were not incompatible but different dimensions of vision.

In the post-Whistler close of Freeman's survey, symbolic techniques are taking hold. "London was once habitable," complains Arthur Symons, a Whistler disciple and a favorite commentator for Freeman: "The machines have killed it, driving out everything old and human [with] wheels and hammers." Yet Whistler himself anticipated the rapidity and the energy, not in adapting modern mechanical invention as subject matter but in the nature of his art. Charged with lacking "finish" in his canvases, he often completed (rather than shortchanged) his visions in a speedy day-and-a-half, revealing a shimmering and even explosive imagery in such pictures as The Falling Rocket. (Freeman refers to a...


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