The Scenery of London

Mitton, G. E.
1905

CHAPTER II: The Colour of London

CHAPTER II: The Colour of London

 

A RAILING accusation has been brought against this our famous city that she has no colour; no colour, not figuratively speaking but actually, no colour like the brilliant tones that make harmonies of the meanest streets in Japan, or such as the clear air reveals in every fabric and texture in Paris. Of all unfounded accusations this is the most untenable ! Colour we have in quantity, crude in startling variety, strewn along our streets, and about our parks and open spaces; colour on the hoardings and in the shops, colour massed in the baskets of the flower women, colour in the neverending procession of brilliant-hued omnibuses that pass along our streets.

This much must be in all honesty granted, but altering the point of the indictment it may be asserted querulously that this colour is to be found only on mean objects of a common sort, and is not worthy of mention. What then of the boasted colour of Japan ? Is it made of gold and precious stones ? Where lies it but in lanterns and paper walls, in screens and fans of

16

the flimsiest, veritable child's toys? What gives the gorgeousness to these slight textures and materials is the warm living atmosphere, sunlight pouring down in a golden flood that enriches even paper until its very flimsiness and transparency become valuable assets in its colour-producing properties, by giving it that transparent glow to be seen in a wild rose growing on a hedge, never on that same wild rose in a room. Granted is the brilliance of the sunlight; our sunlight is comparatively pale at the best; we are never bathed in amber; but we have an atmosphere of our own as wonderful in its colour effects as sunlight itself, and bringing forth pictures of hues as superior to mere clarity as a Turner is to a prim pastel.

 

Look now on this picture, and see it for once with eyes cleared of prejudice, or the mist that grows of long looking, and acknowledge it beautiful. on a winter's evening when the lights are lit, and the shops not yet closed. The street is wet, of course; it has been raining; and the lights flash on the wet harness of the brown-flanked horses, and on the waterproof capes of their drivers. The very roadway is a living river of light and colour, for each swiftly moving lamp, be it yellow or red or white or green, sends a flashing, swaying pyramid behind it or before, to mingle and interlace with other pyramids. Darting hither and thither above this rippling river are the fireflies from which the flashes emanate, moving to and fro, crossing and recrossing in a mystic maze. Here and there their continuity is broken by a broad band of

17

startling colour as an omnibus heaves itself into the wide reflection of the electric lights of a gay shopwindow a band of colour seen an instant and gone.

This brilliant vision is lined on each side by founts of colour. Here are displayed, behind protecting glass, fabrics fresh as flowers in their tints; and here is a flower shop with a wealth of scarlet poinsettias resting near a bank of violets; " deep tulips dashed with fiery dew"; a loose bunch of giant chrysanthemums in amber and terra-cotta, gorgeous anemones make spots of blood-red amid their green, contrasting with the sulphur-yellow fronds of mimosa; if the time be ever so little into the New Year garlands of pink roses and brilliant daffodils will be mingled with the rest; and the whole is banked by green and white. In the other division of the same shop fruit is displayed, the purple and gold of grapes and oranges contrasting with red and green apples in piles, while deeply tinted apricots and downy peaches rest against the greeny purple of fresh figs. In another window near at hand flashes a marvellous arrangement of sequin-covered gowns in Prussian blue, crimson, and silver; they vie in their coruscating light with the contents of a window filled with admirable paste ornaments, set off by turquoise and white velvet. A great confectioner's near has the daintiest arrangement of heliotrope and eau-de-nil, upon which sweets of every variety and device lie in silver-lined trays. These items might be multiplied indefinitely.

I granted just now that London street colour is

18

ofttimes crude; it lacks the tender tones and shades of Japan, and this is noticeably true of the omnibuses. It may be due to the colour-blind condition of a large percentage of our population. We have omnibuses of orange and vermilion and green and blue, but we have no intermediate tones, no purple or primrose, magenta or rose pink. Our omnibus managers, be it presumed, are business men, they work to suit the public taste; when the bolder and simpler colours are exhausted, and it is desired to put a new line of omnibuses on the streets, what does the manager do ? Start a new colour ? Not at all. He knows that to the man in the street crimson and vermilion are both simply "red," and that therein would result confusion. So he varies his colours, by the device of a stripe, white upon green, red upon chocolate, and so on, and adds greatly to the gay aspect of the streets in so doing, but fails to educate the public taste one whit.

In lines of omnibuses at present running I can recall of simple colours, blue, green, orange, red, white, and chocolate; and of mixed colours, white upon blue (if white may for the moment be granted as a variation in colour), upon green, and upon red; red upon green, and blue, and yellow; blue upon chocolate, and upon red; also red upon yellow.

In regard to this same colour-blindness has it not often seemed that it must be a matter of education solely ? We see what we are trained to see; in nurseries where children are carefully brought up no child is allowed to call scarlet and crimson alike red. Yet

19

to the untrained mind all tones of blue, from turquoise to indigo, even including purple, are blue only. Some time ago it was the fashion to carry out one line of colour throughout a costume; if the dress were trimmed with blue or brown, the hat must show items of blue or brown also, hence the terrible falsities of colour seen on the hat of the street girl whose "Reckitt" blue skirt positively shrieked at her peacock blue bow. Now it has dawned upon that same girl, whose education consists wholly in imitation of those above her, that contrasts are fashionable, hence she adopts a violently puce hat with velvet of moss green reposing on it, for has she not seen some well-dressed woman in a becoming costume of indigo and emerald? And to her, blue and green of all shades and tones are merely blue and green.

Let us consider now for a while those atmospheric effects of which we make such a proud boast; there is little possibility of exhausting the subject. The atmosphere of London is a soft ashen grey that refines all outlines, and forbids all crude black patches. This is seen at its best on a clear frosty morning, when the sun is apparently scarce twenty yards above the horizon, when the zenith is clear blue, pale, but deepening every moment, and the sides of the great dome drop downwards to ashen grey. Stand in an open space like that at Hyde Park Corner, and look across to the leafless trees in the Green Park. Around and about the interlacing boughs the shadows are all of tender shades of grey, so soft, so artistic, that they melt and fade imperceptibly

20

into one another, while the vistas hold the greyness as if it were a tangible substance. This surprising atmosphere is often overlooked, for it is so inseparable from the object it enfolds, that it is not easily noticed. But go to one of our black northern towns where there is nothing of the same sort, where blacks and hard browns are the predominating characteristics, and you will be amazed by the contrast with this elusive atmosphere of London, so beautiful, so gentle, but so unobtrusive. Go, if you like, to Kensington Gardens, and see this tender grey enclosed by the overarching branches of the trees in the Broad Walk; here it is unbroken, untouched, and easily noticed. To it are due the principal tones in the London streets in the daytime. , apart from its ever-moving traffic, is a delicate harmony of olive tints, pearl greys, and drabs. Our principal buildings are mostly grey and drab. Heine's description of London, besides being offensive, is inaccurate. He says :

I anticipated great palaces, and saw nothing but mere small houses. . . . These houses of brick, owing to the damp atmosphere and coal smoke, are all of a uniform colour, that is to say, of a brown olive green, and are all of the same style of building, generally two or three windows wide, three stories high, and finished above with small red tiles, which remind one of newly extracted bleeding teeth, while the broad and accurately squared streets, which these houses form, seem to be bordered by endlessly long barracks.

 

Red tiles have never taken hold of modern London's imagination, and even at Heine's date were not common.

21

Red brick has only recently come into fashion again. In the precincts of it may be seen, and in some new buildings made of pinkish brick faced with Bath stone, but it does not form a noticeable element in our streets ; Portland stone has ever been the favourite material, with its leprous white patches and deep indigo stains showing up like shadows on the surface, as in the recesses on . The National Gallery, nearly all Wren's churches, the Law Courts, the great buildings in the City, such as the Bank of England, and many another are of this material. The yellowish olive tinge of limestone is not so fascinating, yet is to be seen very frequently; its chief exponent being the Houses of Parliament. Stucco is frankly ugly, especially the smooth drab variety, and too many of our buildings date unfortunately from the era when stucco spelt gentility. Yet after all, taken in with the grey and the olive, it has its appointed place in the street vistas.

Carlyle's account of London is better than Heine's:

All lies behind me like an ... infinite potter's furnace sea of smoke, with steeples, domes, gilt crosses, high black architecture swimming in it, really beautiful to look at from some knolltop while the sun shines on it . . . some half dozen miles out the monster is quite buried, its smoke rising like a great dusky-coloured mountain melting into the infinite clear sky.

We have seen a street at night; let us take one at mid-day, the Strand for choice. Here the hoardings are very conspicuous in places, owing to the great alteration that is going on; they make sheets of colour, giant picture-books covering an appreciable part

22

of an acre of space; and in most cases, though ablaze with colour, they strike no offensive note but rather the reverse, some among them being positively artistic. The omnibuses in the roadway no longer flash in and out as seen by lamplight, but make two moving continuous ribbons on each side of the roadway. Added to their own proper colours, there is the gamboge of the wheels and bodies, the raw terra-cotta or yellow-ochre of the seats; and with the advertisements hedging them around with every variegated hue and diverscoloured lettering, on the whole it may be admitted that they are not only gay but positively gaudy. Flecked here and there in the moving crowd is the dominant note of government in a scarlet pillar box, or postal van. A blue-bloused lad darts hither and thither under the very noses of the chestnut horses in pursuit of his roadscraping work. Here glitters a bicycle; there a group of flower women are making a perfect garden with their baskets of yellow daffodils, cream-tinted and pink roses, violets here as elsewhere, pearl-white lilies lying in sheaths of delicate green, brilliant scarlet anemones, and deep rich brown wallflowers. Throughout the traffic in the roadway are the spinning wheels of the hansoms picked out in blue and red. It may be that a man with frail coloured balloons stands by the kerb, and his shimmering wares hover like gigantic bubbles on their pole. The newspaper placards, green and orange, lie scattered in the roadway, or form aprons for yelling boys. Among other touches that add here and there to the gaiety of the streets may be mentioned the green

23

cab shelters with their flower boxes and the sandwichmen with their many-hued boards.

And the people themselves, that swaying, eddying crowd, hurrying this way and that, threading, interlacing, with exactly as much seeming consistency and motive as ants in an ant-hill, do they add nothing to the scene in the way of colour? Well, it must be confessed, not much. Occasionally there may be a glint of colour in a hat or a blouse, or the lining of a coat swinging open, to strike one note more in the great colour opera of the eye; but in the main they are sombre, clad in blacks and browns and greys, and often in the olive greens that harmonise with much of the background. As a nation we do not patronise bright colours freely ; our climate does not permit it. The frequent rain and the liquid brown mud are disastrous to rich or light hues; we want something that does not " show the dirt." It is only carriage folk and those who throng the parks in fashionable hours who can afford brilliance, and they are not in evidence in the streets. Even the children are not gay; beyond a scarlet tam o' shanter or a blue muffler, they add little to the colour scheme, and to find brightly dressed children we must go to that strange foreign quarter in Soho where two out of every three persons passed in the street are talking French or Italian. Heredity, or a reminiscence of a sunnier, drier land, outweighs considerations of economy here, and a black-eyed, brown-faced mite in a crushed strawberry coat with a blue tam o' shanter and a yellow muffler, or a little lad in blue knickers, brown velveteen coat, and scarlet cap, is not an

24

uncommon sight. Here are a few instances taken at random from a cursory glance into the street: a little girl in a puce dress, white pinafore, and striped red-and-green woolly cap, with a light blue bow; another in a turquoise frock, white pinafore, and navy cap with a scarlet feather stuck in it; a third in magenta frock and blue cap, with a bow of scarlet ribbon; another in a much-soiled pink frock, eau-de-nil coat, and turquoise cap, and such instances might be multiplied indefinitely.

Speaking of the parks, where the fashionable world is seen to advantage at its own times and seasons, it must be admitted that here colour is at all events rightly appreciated, though most of us are too work-a-day to use it. At no time during the last century could one have seen a crowd more daringly or brilliantly attired. To be assured of it, go to the fashionable tea place near the bridge over the Serpentine at five o'clock on a fine summer day. There the gayest of striped awnings and great Japanese umbrellas shade a number of dainty and audacious colour schemes, which even a Japanese crowd could not excel. Apple green and turquoise blue, heliotrope and amber, pale pink and purple, are only a few among those that strike the sight; no combination remains unsought by those who follow no machine-made laws but judge by the eye alone, if it may be risked. The sunshades in themselves are a flower garden, with fluttering petals of old rose, and daintily interwoven shades. At the other end of the great expanse of open space, near , in the spring, what masses of colour may be found in banks of rhododendron,

25

deep crimson, salmon, white and pink forming a background to the gay crowds who gather for church parade, though it is true this parade is somewhat fallen from its former popularity. The beds of laid-out flowers byshow colour at all seasons of the year, and here colour design is followed in the interweaving patterns of the bulbous plants.

Let us go from one extreme of the social scale to the other, from the heights of fashion to the depths of " the nether world." The Rembrandtesque effects of light and shade, of colour and costume, belonging to lower London have often been described, but almost always in connection with the East End. There is, however, no need to go to the East End to find such scenes, for the West can hold its own. Beyond the highly respectable neighbourhood of South Kensington, beyond the less fashionable but still popular district of Earl's Court, there lies a road called the North End Road. Visit this on a Saturday night, and all the colours on your palette will hardly suffice to do the scene justice. The butchers shops are in their glory, and attract scores of workingclass women on the look-out for a "tasty bit" for Sunday's dinner. The crude vermilion of the meat rising tier above tier is illumined by flaring gas jets, and breaks with wild effect on the blazing blue of the butcher's apron as he stands at one end, elevated on a block and shouting with all his might; for here whoso makes the most noise gets the most custom. As likely as not he may be decorated with a huge wreath of chrysanthemums hung around his brawny chest, as if he

26

himself were about to play the rôle of sacrificial ox. The clothes of all the people who block the roadway and line the side-walks are black, but this only serves to set off the brightness of the stalls that line the street from end to end in a double row. The flaring naphtha lights hiss and glow on the fruit barrows festooned with bunches of pale green and purple grapes. Below are spread out in attractive array richly tinted oranges, ruddy apples, and shining red tomatoes; there are yellow bananas in clusters, and pomegranates, laid open and showing purple-red in gashes; tufted celery and terra-cotta carrots complete the picture, and this stall is only one among a dozen similar ones. On another stall near by are shell-fish; pink shrimps in piles, mussels, whelks, and sea snails. Beyond this bunches of blue and red tam o' shanters are clustered like the fruit of some Gargantuan plant, and children's pinafores, pink and white, with " lengths " of blue and lilac spotted prints lie in heaps.
Tinware, boot stalls and confectionery are predominant in the next batch of stalls; the last named surpassing in its exceeding pinkness all other imaginable material. At a corner a man waves a huge brilliantly coloured flag, the while he lectures to a half-amused, half-uncomprehending audience, while another, literally clothed in green and yellow and red spotted bandana handkerchiefs, distributes his wares by this curious form of self-advertisement as he goes along. And through it all the patient 'bus horses move step by step; they know it is Saturday night as well as any mortal in the crowd.

So far we have dealt almost exclusively with the more obvious and brilliant colours, but those who know London, and study her every aspect as they study the changes of expression on the face of a dear friend, need no vivid contrasts, which are only adduced to convince the sceptic. To these lovers of London the vistas she offers, apart from extraneous objects, are in themselves perfect in tone and colour. The Embankment on a spring morning is a dream of delight; on the one side rolls the leaden-grey river, lightened by ripples silver-lined, and on the farther bank rises a marvel in greys and drabs; buildings, yards, and wharves alike toned and softened by the wonderful atmosphere. Stretching ahead is the grey granite Embankment, turning a hundred sombre hues beneath the climatic influences. Above it, like a line of softly fluttering ribbon, is the line of young planes showing as tender a green as any on earth; to the left are the giant hotels, towering above a shrouded base of green, and farther on arise the red buildings of the Temple, old and new.

Or stand on the bridge crossing the ornamental water in and face eastward; the great Government buildings arise in silver-grey, and the leaden water and the green tints are the same as on the Embankment. Everything is covered with a veil of grey as with a fairy web. Green, grey, and silver, with olive green in shadow, these are the real tones in the colour scheme of London. Occasionally, once or twice in a year maybe, London wakes up to play at being Paris. She has donned for the nonce the

28

brilliantly clear atmosphere of the sister city, and looks as if she had been washed in sparkling water during the night. The atmosphere is clear as crystal, the street vistas look different, and we wonder we never noticed this and that before; every brick in the buildings and every leaf in the parks stands out, distinct and beautiful. One almost holds one's breath, it is wonderful, but it is a trick, a whim, and lasts but a very short time. Then we go back to the London we know and love the best, for after all it is London we want and not Paris.

We have left until the last one of the glories of London immortalised by the devotion of her greatest painter. We shrink from the task, for how can one put on paper with black ink the sunsets which Turner's brush could hardly paint ?

 

To describe sunsets in general terms is truly impossible, yet all who live in London, and especially those whose release from business sends them westward at or about the sunset hour in autumn, will know how the walls of straight, high, slate-grey houses often frame a glowing, diffused light in the western sky. This is seen at its best in the wider thoroughfares, such as the Cromwell Road. Half the sky is alight with glory, shading from orange red to palest yellow, with wisps of smoky cloud floating against the background. The upper lines and angles of the houses are touched with gold, while the lower parts melt into that soft grey green so evanescent, so elusive, the grey-green of the short-lived twilight.

To see the sunset in its perfection it is necessary to go to one of the bridges on the river, and one such sunset seen from Battersea Bridge is as clearly imprinted on the retina as a poem learnt by heart is on the mind. The predominant colour was red-gold, a sort of smoky glory, fading at its darkest into dun, and rising at its lightest into primrose. These colours were sketched in and emphasised by immense wisps of transparent cloud rising from the horizon like feathery columns of smoke blown hither and thither. Above, in a sky of clearest, palest blue swam detached and heavy clouds like small islands on a sea of glass; they were gold-lined by the glory that caught them from beneath, and the bays and indentations in their rugged sides were of a green as pale and rare as the blue sky around, a green probably caused by the combination of the yellow rays striking across the blue.

The year of sunsets, however, was , the year of the eruption of Krakatoa, when night by night skies of blood-red were to be seen vivid and almost awful in their grandeur.

The accusation that will be brought forward by some readers of this chapter we anticipate and rebut by quoting once again the sage :-

You are an enthusiast (are you ?) Make Arabian nights out of dull foggy London, with your beautiful imagination shape burnished copper castles out of London fog . . . are you not all the richer and better that you know the essential gold ? . . . I honour such alchemy.