Beautiful Things – London Impressions

London Impressions: etchings and pictures in photogravure by William Hyde and essays by Alice Meynell was published in 1898.  Both the words and the images in this book are beautiful.  Hyde uses a very soft sometimes charcoal like approach to photogravure – a photo-mechanical intaglio printing process that uses light to expose an image on to a plate which is then acid-etched.  The charcoal-like nature of Hyde’s work is accompanied by accurate and fine detail.  This mix of techniques does indeed provide a very impressionistic view of London at the end of the 19th century.  Alice Meynell is now mostly remembered as a poet but she was also a suffragist, a critic, an editor and an early questioner of Europe’s colonial imperialism.  Her prose in London Impressions often speaks of the colours, sounds and other sensory experiences of London.

An Impression

BL Meynell fol-6

‘Add to this the black garments of the crowd, which make every man conspicuous in the light, and the abrupt and minute patches of white – exceedingly pure white of sharp shapes and angles – scattered throughout the drifting and intercrossing multitude.  The white of a footman’s shirt, the white of the collars of innumerable men, the white letters of advertisements, the white of the label at the back of cabs and hansoms, and many and many another little square, triangle, and line of white, are visible to the utmost distances.  They have an emphasis that is never softened; nothing except snow, could be whiter; and nothing, perhaps, makes so salient a part of the enormous fragmentariness of the street view.’ (p. 7-8)

Utilitarian London

BL Meynell fol-4

Terrible London

BL Meynell fol-5

The Climate of Smoke

‘And yet the artificial climate of London is at its best when it is very obvious, and when it has strong scenes of sunset or storm to deal with.  The time when it is insufferable is noonday or full afternoon on a cloudless day in summer, when there is not wind enough to drift it, helpless, out of town, and when it is not thick enough to keep the sun away.  It makes the sunshine ugly.  No beauty, even artificial or obvious belongs to the smoke then, and it plays no antic pranks in mimicry of cloud.  It has no shadow and no menace; it has no opportunity for stage-plays: it is disconcerted, and cannot make a penny theatre of its London.  Every one must know such days, of which the essence should have been their purity, plain and splendid.  By their light is the smoke seen to be nothing in the world but a sorry smirch.  The horizon is thickened with it, and there it wreaks its chief ‘effects’, but all near things are also oppressed by it; the spirit of the sunshine is gone, and a blazing sun upon miles of blue slate roofs and yellow houses, with the uncleanness of smoke just showing in the blaze, is actually that impossibility – sunshine without beauty.’ (p. 10)

Kensington Gardens

BL Meynell fol-3

The Trees

‘The leaves of the street-side tree flutter bright emerald green through the whole night (out of town discolouring night) of leafy summer.  That local colour is never quenched, as human blushes are quenched at night.  It rather takes a more conspicuous quality, under the closeness of the electric light; it is sharply green.  Whereas the days has its mists and veils, and may at times darken a tree nearly black, by setting the sky alight behind it, the night has none of these shadows.  The light of night is stationary and unchangeable, and there are some solitary trees here and there that undergo the unshifting illumination at the closest quarters; the light that knows no hours and makes no journey gleams near upon the motion of the leaves and glosses their faces.  It is beforehand with the twilight, so that the dusk when it comes finds the place taken, and it will not let the tree go until the light of day flows in fully, and dawn is over.’ (p. 12)

London Impressions is a book from the Bromhead Library, a collection of around 4000 volumes almost exclusively about London and Londoners. 

Beautiful Things – Text and photographs by Charles Harrowell.


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