EYEWITNESS: The Chromatic Effects of Late Nineteenth-Century London Fog

Anna Novakov and T. Novakov

like a yellow silken scarf, the thick fog hangs along the quay[1]

<1> In the 1880s, London’s frequent and well-documented episodes of fog were a phenomenon unique to England’s most densely populated, diverse, and industrialized urban center. The spectacular nature of the embankment fog, often described by eyewitnesses as changeable and even colorful, caught the imagination of many artists and writers who saw in these atmospheric manifestations a symbol of modernity and the role of industrialization on an evolving urban space. While the illusive city, shrouded in winter fog, created the perfect backdrop for mysterious, criminal activity, it also proved to be a compelling inspiration for those who read the fog as a more positive symbol of London’s cosmopolitan status. In this essay, we seek to interrelate some artistic and literary references to the fog with contemporary explanations addressing the causes of this atmospheric phenomenon. Through this interdisciplinary approach, we hope to shed light on the physical, artistic and even psychological implications of Victorian air pollution.[2]

<2> Expansions of industrial activity during the later half of the 19th century resulted in frequent and severe air pollution episodes. In London, the smoke that billowed as a result of domestic and industrial coal burning began mixing with existing natural fog. Charles Dickens wrote in Bleak House that “smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes –- gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”[3] The resulting smog (word coined from smoke + fog), was often sited by both visitors and locals as an optical experience unique to London. These low-laying fogs reduced visibility in the city to less than a mile while resulting in the loss of up to fifty percent of the sunshine in the winter months.[4] Thomas Hardy mentions it is in his 1900 poem “The Darkling Rush” as

I leant upon a coppice gate,
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.[5]

While writer Arthur Symons wrote that “In London, men work as if in darkness, scarcely seeing their own hands . . . and not knowing the meaning of their labour.”[6] French writer Joris-Karl Huyseman likewise wrote in 1884 that “A rainy, colossal London smelling of molten metal and of soot, ceaselessly streaming and smoking in the fog now spread out before his eyes . . . All this was transpiring in vast warehouses along the river banks which were bathed by the muddy and dull water of an imaginary Thames . . . while trains rushed past at full speed or rumbled underground uttering horrible cries and vomiting waves of smoke, and while, through every street, monstrous and gaudy and infamous advertisements flared through the eternal twilight.”[7]

<3> In Jayati Gupta’s essay “London Through Alien Eyes,” published in Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, he references Madame Krishnabhabini Das’ 1880s London experiences. She noted that “this sort of fog persists through the day and assumes different hues – sometimes ashen – sometimes black – sometimes yellow.” Another eye witness L.C.W. Bonacina gave this insightful description of yellow fog’s evolution “A really bad nineteenth century fog appeared early in the morning as a thick white mist, like the country fog, only dirtier. With the lighting of the fires it would soon become yellow and pungent, irritating the throat and eyes, till midday the continued outpouring of chimney products would have turned the fog a sooty brownish black causing the darkness of night.” Furthermore he added that, “During summer months major fogs were virtually unknown in the nineteenth century just as they are in the twentieth.”[8]

<4> These, and other more contemporary reports most often described the yellow hue prevalent in London fog. Oscar Wilde noted the yellow hue in his poem “Impression du Matin”:

The Thames nocturne of blue and gold
Changed to a Harmony in grey:
A barge with ochre-coloured hay
Dropt from the wharf: and chill and cold
The yellow fog came creeping down
The bridges, till the houses' walls
Seemed changed to shadows and St. Paul's
Loomed like a bubble o'er the town.[9]

Bonacina’s chromatic observations can certainly be credited to the predominance of domestic coal burning. Tars from low temperature coal combustion in the morning were yellow. The yellow tar, created in the morning, was soluble in fog water and thus colored the fog droplets creating the appearance of chromatic fog. Later in the day, emissions from industry, steam locomotives and ships increased coinciding with the darkening fogs. Tar produced in these higher temperatures took on a dark brown coloration. Atmospheric chemist Peter Brimblecombe proposed the following three possible origins for the yellow fog: (i) light scattering by smoke particles above the fog such that it was illuminated by yellowish light, (ii) the gas and weak electric light gave the fog a yellowish hue at night, and (iii) tarry compounds actually colored the fog, giving preference to the latter possibility.[10]

<5> Victorian writers, noted with some frequency additional chromatic effects produced by the modern fog. In 1899, an article was published in The Artist magazine that read “There’s nothing to be seen like it ever – in any town in Europe. They say it’s due to the smoke and it may be; but just look at it. Look at the purple and crimson, the scarlet and gold . . . until with just the tiniest fleck of pink it sinks into the palest green.”[11] Aaron Watson, in an article in the Magazine of Art, suggests that the city “enfolds all ugliness in a purple haze.”[12] Charles Dickens in his novel Our Mutual Friend notes that “Even in the surrounding country it was a foggy day, but there the fog was great, whereas in London it was, at about the boundary line, dark yellow, and a little within it brown, and then browner, and then browner, until at the heart of the City -- which call Saint Mary Axe – it was rustic black.”[13]

<6> Visual artists, such as French painter Claude Monet, witnessed the yellow fogs as well as a variety of additional chromatic atmospheric effects. For Monet, London’s varied fogs were a spectacular manifestation of turn-of-century city life -– an optical phenomenon that he captured in a well documented and frequently referenced series of canvases.

<7> London was a magical place for Monet. He beamed “I so love London! But I love it only in winter. It’s nice in summer with its parks, but nothing like it is in winter with the fog, for without the fog, London wouldn’t be a beautiful city. It’s the fog that gives it its magnificent breadth. Those massive, regular blocks become grandiose within that mysterious cloak.”[14] In 1900 he added that “The weather is magnificent but unsettled . . . I can’t begin to describe a day as wonderful as this. One [colored] marvel, after another each lasting less than five minutes, it was enough to drive one mad. No country could be more extraordinary for a painter.”[15]

<8> The constantly changing chromatic effects of London’s fog were unusual and bear little resemblance to contemporary atmospheric phenomena. To understand this unique development it is vital to discuss the evidence for these chromatic fogs. Taking into account the lack of scientific, measurement-based observations, we would like to employ artistic production, such as Monet’s Thames series, as indirect evidence –- source material that forms the basis for a broader explanatory discussion of this form of air pollution.

<9> Between 1898 and 1901, Monet made numerous extended trips to London. Working from an upscale Savoy Hotel suite, he created numerous paintings of the Waterloo and Charing Cross Bridges. As an accomplished and sensitive colorist, Monet found himself captivated by London’s fog and its spectacular optical appearance, which he referred to as l’enveloppe. Of particular relevance to this essay is Monet’s description “The fog in London assumes all sorts of colors; there are black, brown, yellow, green, [and] purple fogs.”[16] Was the colored fog depicted in these paintings and referenced in written accounts a subjective interpretation of the London’s cityscape or documentary evidence of London’s timely and transient atmospheric effects?

<10> These hazy, colorful paintings are certainly marvelous Impressionist interpretations of the city’s skyline. The chromatic effects that Monet was trying to capture in the bridge scenes were fleeting and momentary. The changeable weather conditions of the morning fog and winter color palette, forced the artist to work on stacks of canvases at the same time. Monet recalled that “At the Savoy Hotel . . . from which I looked at my points of view, I had up to a hundred canvases under way –- of the same subject. By searching among the sketches feverishly, I chose one of them that didn’t differ too much from what I saw; despite everything, I altered it completely. When work was finished, I would notice, in moving my canvases, that I had overlooked precisely the one that would have suited me best and which I had at hand.”[17] Monet’s artistic output and his frantic attempts to capture fleeting effects are visual evidence of the changing and colorful atmospheric effects he witnessed.

<11> For Monet, the Waterloo Bridge took on many manifestations depending on the time of day and visual effects of the fog. The bridge appears as mauve semi-circles in the Chicago Art Institute’s version of the Waterloo Bridge. The painting foreground focuses our eye on surface effects of undulating droplets of colored water. Receding into the background, factory chimneys reinforce the arches of the bridge while further bisecting Monet’s composition. Smoke stacks appear thin, and veil-like as they allowed plumes of golden yellow smoke to enter the atmosphere.

<12> In the University of Rochester’s version, the bridge and surrounding industrial landscape are like phantoms emerging through a mauve haze. The factory towers anchor the bridge and water below while their forceful presence appears to solidify the continually changing vista. Battling the unstable atmospheric colors, Monet sought out geographical markers, such as Waterloo Bridge, to create a solid presence within an otherwise fleeting scene.

<13> Charing Cross Bridge, in the Baltimore Museum’s collection, shows the most frequent chromatic effects -- speckled yellow in the foreground and emerging mauve in the background. Through the foggy sunlight, touches of blue, green, white and grey also come to the surface, while in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston version floating patches of golden yellow radiate brilliantly against the cool blue/green silhouette of the bridge.

<14> Certainly, Monet’s London paintings are compelling works of art, however, they are also of note as visual evidence for the physical reality of turn-of-the century air pollution -- the changeable, chromatic fog episodes caused by low quality (high sulfur content) coal burned by both households and industry. Coal burned in inefficient household stoves disproportionately contributed to atmospheric smoke (or soot) loading. At that time London had about 600,000 kitchen chimneys.[18] Soot and sulfate particles serving as nuclei on which water vapor condenses to droplets resulted in a dense fog that is much more persistent than natural clean fog.[19]

<15> Compounding the severity of pollution throughout the nineteenth century were emissions from industrial processes. The most important chemical activity was the making of so-called “alkali” (principally sodium carbonate and sodium hydroxide). When mixed with fat, alkali were used to make soap, and when mixed with "lime" and sand they made glass. These so-called “Alkali works” discharged large volumes of hydrochloric acid into the atmosphere.[20]

<16> The key to understanding both the yellow and the multicolored fog is in the properties of airborne tar produced by inefficient coal combustion. Combustion efficiency depends on the combustion technology and particularly on combustion temperature. Low temperature coal burning in domestic and industrial devices, characteristic of those in Victorian London, were prolific sources of soot as evidenced by black plumes commonly seen in historical photographs. Soot from such sources may be associated with significant amounts of tar that can be defined as condensable volatile organic materials. These materials could not be combusted at low temperatures and are therefore discharged into the atmosphere along with soot and gaseous pollutants.[21] At perfectly efficient or high temperature combustion of coal only carbon dioxide (CO2) and water are formed along with noncombustible mineral ash. Contemporary sources still emit various amounts of soot and organic particles although in hugely reduced amounts and with little tar.

<17> As witnessed by Monet’s Thames paintings, London fog occasionally appeared in a variety of vivid colors in addition to the more common yellow. According to the artists own written as well as visual account, these vivid colors lasted only a few minutes at a time in contrast to the yellow that lasted for hours. To our knowledge, no physical or chemical explanations of this multi-colored phenomenon have been proposed to date. In this essay we would like to suggest a hypothesis based on examining the chemical properties of airborne pollutants and their sources unique to the times of colored fogs.

<18> Our hypothesis is based on two complementary forms of evidence: First, a large fraction of airborne particles in London atmosphere was low temperature tar and second, chemical reactions involving constituents of such tars yield colorful dyes. For example, in 1834 German chemist Friedrich Ferdinand Runge isolated from coal tar a substance that produced a radiant blue color. A red dye, called fuchsine or magenta, was obtained in 1856 by J. Natanson and by A. W. Hofmann in 1858. The first industrial-scale use of coal tar was in the manufacture of mauveine, a purple dye discovered in 1856 by British chemist William Henry Perkin. Many other coal tar-based dyes having a range of colors were subsequently synthesized.[22]

<19> A simplified scheme of dye formation relevant to the present discussion can be described as follows. Coal tar is a complex organic material having, among others, aniline and phenols as major constituents. These species acting as bases yield corresponding salts when reacting with acids. These salts are water-soluble, and may impart a variety of colors to their aqueous solutions.[23] For such a mechanism to operate in the atmosphere in addition to particle-bound tar and fog water, it would require the presence of significant concentrations of acids. These were abundantly provided by emissions of hydrochloric acid (HCl) from the “alkali works” producing mostly producing sodium carbonate from common salt.

<20> Following the above reasoning we would like to propose a qualitative explanation of the colored fogs. The composition of an urban atmosphere is determined by the emissions from all sources including the products of chemical reactions of among these effluents. Tarry compounds in plumes from coal burning in, for example household stoves, may persist in their unchanged state or may encounter acid-containing industrial plumes. The former may retain the original (i.e., yellow or brown) color both within and without the fog. The latter situation, however, may occasionally result in coal tar dye formation when the right conditions for chemical reactions are reached. Small amounts of these dyes (like all dyes) can color a large volume of water.

<21> The fascination with London’s fog episodes was not relegated to the turn-of-the century. Well into the following century, the atmospheric effects of London’s fog continued to be a source of interest. In the 1920s, Alfred Hitchcock released The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, his first full-length cinematic thriller. The screenplay was based on a novel by writer Marie Belloc Lowndes, a Londoner who came of age in the 1880s, a period that witnessed the city’s infamous Jack-the-Ripper killing spree. For Lowndes, Victorian London, symbolized by low-lying urban fog, embodied the dark, underbelly of modern society – a space for the playing out of aberrant behavior. The Lodger, loosely based on the Ripper’s murderous spree, is a compelling and remarkably experimental silent work that employs the atmospheric effects of London fog, rather than written words or evocative gestures or facial expressions, to forward the cinematic plot. The dense fog, peppered throughout the film, forms an atmospheric backdrop for inferred criminal activity. Simultaneously, Hitchcock updates the atmospheric theme, by suggesting that our fascination with fog is not solely based on its unique, optical properties. The fog’s attributes, including its fluctuating opacity and transparence, serve as a suitable metaphor for modern life. The Lodger’s main character is brought back into conceptual reality as the fog clears and the sun emerges. In sunlight, we see the lodger recovering in a hospital bed from his nervous breakdown. By linking the psychological state of the film’s protagonist with the appearance or disappearance of urban fog, Hitchcock was able to imply a much closer link between people and their environment than had been posited in earlier decades. The modern city, shrouded in fog, had evolved into a symbol of urban legibility –- a link between the individual and the modern condition.

We would like to thank John E. Thornes and Gemma Metherell (University of Birmingham) for sharing their manuscript " “The Art and Science of London’s Atmosphere around 1900” prior to publication, and H. Destaillats (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) for his suggestions and comments. Our gratitude also goes to Carol Beran, Sandra Grayson, Barry Horwitz and Kathryn Koo (St. Mary’s College of California), Tina Choi (York University) and Robert Haas (University of California, Berkeley) for their literary references.


[1] We are referencing a verse from Oscar Wilde’s 1881 poem 'Symphony in Yellow' reproduced in Vyvyan Holland, Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. (London: Collins, 1966) 808. [^]

[2] As noted by Oscar Wilde in his 1889 “The Decay of Lying” dialogue “Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge?” Jeffrey Kastner and Sina Najafi, “Our Weather, A Selection” Cabinet, Issue 3, Summer 2001. http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/3/ourweather.php. [^]

[3] Charles Dickens. Bleak House. (London: Oxford University Press, 1962) 1. [^]

[4] H. A. Des Voeux, “Smoke and Fog”, The Lancet, Dec. 10, 1904, 1579 – 1680. [^]

[5] The poem is quotes by Gladys Cardiff, University of Michigan, in her essay “On Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” published online at http://homepages.wmich.edu/~cooneys/tchg/wby/Cardiff.Hardy.html. [^]

[6] Arthur Symons in London: A Book of Aspects quoted in Ira Bruce Nadel and F. S. Schwarzbach, eds. Victorian Artists and the City: A Collection of Critical Essays. (New York: Pergamon Press, 1980) 52. [^]

[7] Huysman in Against the Grain (A Rebours), 1884 quoted in Grace Seiberling, Monet in London. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, date) 38. [^]

[8] L.C.W. Bonacina, “London Fogs – Then and Now”, Weather, Volume 5, 1950, 91. [^]

[9] The Oscar Wilde poem is published online at http://www.bartleby.com/103/20.html. [^]

[10] P. Brimblecombe, “Long term trends in London fog”, The Science of the Total Environment, Volume 22, 1982, 19—29. [^]

[11] A March 1999 article in The Artist quoted in Ira Bruce Nadel and F. S. Schwarzbach, eds. Victorian Artists and the City: A Collection of Critical Essays. (New York: Pergamon Press, 1980) 88. [^]

[12] Ibid, 85. [^]

[13] Charles Dickens. Our Mutual Friend. (London: Oxford University Press, 1959) 420. [^]

[14] Claude Monet in a letter to his art dealer Gimpel, Seiberling, 55. [^]

[15] Claude Monet in a letter to his wife Alice quoted in Katharine Lochnan, Turner, Whistler, Monet: Impressionist Visions. (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2004) 181. [^]

[16] Claude Monet quoted in Seiberling. 62. [^]

[17] Ibid, 68-69. [^]

[18] H. A. Des Voeux, “Smoke and Fog”, The Lancet, December 10, 1904, 1579 – 1680;- “Coal Smoke Abatement” news item in The Lancet, March 30, 1912, 881. [^]

[19] P. Brimblecombe, “Long term trends in London fog”, The Science of the Total Environment, Volume 22, 1982, 19—29. [^]

[20] For details on chemical industry in England see D. Simpson, Timeline of North East History: Chemicals and glass 1800 - 1900, http://thenortheast.fsnet.co.uk. [^]

[21] For details on tar and soot formation see, for example, P. R. Solomon, T. H. Fletcher and R. J. Pugmire, “Progress in Coal Pyrolysis”, Fuel, Volume 72, 1993, 587- 597. [^]

[22] S. Garfield, Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), 242. [^]

[23] For details see W. Baker and D. Miles. “The Red Colour given by Coal-tar Phenols and Aqueous Alkalies”, J. Chemical Society UK, 1951, 2089. [^]