London in 1898 was the most populous city in the world, a metropolis of “four million souls” as Arthur Conan Doyle continually reminds us in the Sherlock Holmes stories. The stereotypical representation of London in the 19th century is of a city wreathed in fog but the reality was closer to the dense smogs that plague Chinese cities today. The four million souls heated themselves by burning wood and coal, and the resulting smoke (and a fair amount of steam, no doubt) combined with the British climate to create the noxious, tinted “fogs” that fill the streets of Victorian fiction.
Whatever the health hazards, the vaporous atmosphere had its champions in artists such as Claude Monet and James Whistler, both of whom relished the way the smoky air softened the silhouettes of the city. William Hyde may be added to the list for this superb series of etchings showing London at its most tenebrous, another chance discovery at the Internet Archive. London Impressions is an ambivalent celebration of the capital as a city of shadows, smoke and fog, the essays by Alice Meynell ruefully admitting that while the industrial cities of the north may rival London for their polluted atmosphere, their smaller size means that blue sky is never far away, something the Londoner of 1898 couldn’t take for granted. This is a marvellous book, and one I’d love to own if it wasn’t so rare; there’s a copy on eBay at the moment for $1,640. At least we can read it (and download the pages) here.