This painting effectively displays the atmospheric problems that London struggled with during the artist’s lifetime. When most homes relied on coal fires and industry too derived much of its power from coal, ‘pea-soupers’ were a regular occurrence. As the fog closed in totally obscuring ones vision, the smog was so thick that much of London descended into grey. Fog persisted well into the 20th century. Indeed, in TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, London was noted as the ‘Unreal City, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn’.
With coal fires, industrial chimneys and belching steamers a particular misty light was created along the Thames in the daytime and at night. Many artists in the 20th century chose to aestheticise the visual experience of the Thames in this state, including Whistler in the 1960s.
Herbert Charles Touzeau Ahier seized onto the potential of painting the light through the fog and mist in the urban setting. In this painting mystery is evoked as the background of the work has been turned into an empty chasm devoid of form which we know must be there. The silhouettes of the buildings on the other side of the river appear to be dissolving before our very eyes. A world is revealed that is disappearing into formlessness beneath the weight of the yellow-grey fog. The precise way that the lights in the scene are painted give the impression of these are looming out towards the viewer, as they often seem to do on a foggy night.
The illustrator, Herbert C Ahier, established himself before the First World War as a specialist in images of ships. After that war, he worked as a commercial artist, and occasional illustrator, for J M Dent & Sons, revealing a talent for a wider range of imagery. He extended this talent, in later life, in producing pleasing traditional landscape watercolours. To this day his is best known for his studies of gunboats and fishing boats.
Herbert Ahier was born in Mile End, East London, on 23 December 1888, where his father worked as a post office parcel carrier. His father’s family had possibly settled there from Grouville, Jersey. By 1901, he was living with his widowed grandmother, Eliza Phillipps Ahier (née Cross), at 38 Antill Road.