Nocturnal Atmospheres in Nineteenth-Century London: Public Lighting and Luminous Emotions

By Cigdem Talu, McGill University

When the Victoria Embankment opened in 1870 in London, newspapers and the public welcomed it as one of the biggest and most grandiose metropolitan development projects of the last two centuries. The project included a promenade, gardens, a new sewer system, roads for the underground train and roads above the ground to control traffic. At night, the embankment was first illuminated with gas lighting, then electric as early as 1878 – it became the first street in Britain to be lit with electric lights. It was a prominent public space in the city’s nocturnal landscape.

Vintage postcard showing the Thames embankment, from the 1890s
Figure 1: 1890s postcard of the Thames Embankment, Wikimedia Commons

The artificial lighting of the embankment and the decisions behind it were part of a long fervent public debate, often expressed through emotive language. The debate on which kind of lighting was appropriate for this new riverside urban walk was represented most clearly in the press and paintings or photographs from that period, depicting an aestheticization of the night. The manifold depictions of the Victoria Embankment at night in newspapers, paintings, and literature constructed a certain emotive image of this scene. This emotive image, I would say, depicts the nocturnal atmospheres of London at the time, demonstrating a shared affect between the observer and the city.

Italian philosopher Tonino Griffero defines ‘atmospheres’ as spatialized emotions,[1] making the ‘lived’ space an acting subject. According to Griffero, everything in the environment is ‘affectively’ charged and one is always engaged with/within these (multiple) spheres of affective resonance. I am particularly interested in the retrospective representations of atmospheres in the built environment, and how this ‘in-between’ affect is depicted by its inhabitants; how this tension between emotions, experience, and the outside world can be probed in historical sources, iconographic and textual. In the case of the Victoria Embankment and nineteenth-century London, the introduction of nocturnal lighting propels accounts of nocturnal urban experience to move from texts to visual forms of representation in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Photo of Blackfriars bridge taken at night time.
Figure 2: James Petts, Blackfriars Bridge by night (15 February 2017), Flickr

The first street to be illuminated by gaslight in London as an experiment was Pall Mall in 1807. The Monthly Magazine described its effect as ‘beyond all dispute superior to the old method of lighting our streets. […] The light is beautifully white and brilliant’.[2] In 1812 the Parliament granted a charter to the Gaslight and Coke Company, the first gas company in the world. The following year Westminster Bridge was lit by gas, and after that gaslight gradually spread and illuminated the night of London. Until the eighteenth century, public lighting was quite disorganised in the city and only through the industrialisation of gas lighting in the nineteenth century did it become ‘street lighting’ in the modern urban sense.

Gaslight’s transitional gloom and colours were due to the sulphates in the fluid and its glow created a tangible and synesthetic atmosphere in the city, for those who could be out in the street during the night. For example, inCharles Dickens’s writings, gaslight becomes mysterious and ephemeral. A passage in Bleak House, published in 1853, expresses the transitioning hours from daylight to gaslight: ‘The day is now beginning to decline. […] The gloom augments; the bright gas springs up in the streets’.[3] Or, a few years later in 1859, the journalist George Augustus Sala illustrated the poetics of gaslight as following:

The gas has its secrets, and I happen to know them. The Gas has a voice, and I can hear it. […] As I walk the streets by night, endless and always-suggestive intercommunings take place between me and the silent, ever-watchful gas, whose secrets I know. In broad long streets where the vista of lamps stretches far far away into almost endless perspective.[4]

As gaslight created these hues of light and darkness at night, the mysterious world of the night was contrasted to the controlled world of the day. Until large public projects like the embankment and the widespread use of electric light in the streets, ‘nightwalking’ as an urban activity was reserved for an audience eager to delve into the more dangerous and deserted streets. In June 1878, whether electric light could be introduced to the streets was debated in the press. The Morning Post reported the Works and General Purposes Committee would consider ‘trying an experiment of electric lighting’ on the Victoria Embankment, since it was generally agreed upon in the public that electric light was ‘infinitely better’ than gas lighting.[5]

Illustration of the Electric Light on the Thames Embankment, from Graphic magazine (1879)
Figure 3: ‘The Electric Light on the Thames Embankment’, Graphic, 4 Jan. 1879, 17. British Library Newspapers. Gale Primary Sources.

The same year the Victoria Embankment became the first street in Britain to be lit with electric lights and the electricity was produced by Yablochkov arc lamps (see Figure 3). However, electric lighting did not gain enough momentum to become competitive, and gas lighting returned to the embankment in 1884. The embankment was lit by gaslight until 1901, when electricity was re-established permanently.

The Victoria Embankment represented a twofold situation. Firstly, the terrain itself was reclaimed from the previously disorganized riverbank of the Thames, to create an ordered and accessible riverside walk. Secondly, this walk was now available at all times, thanks to street lighting. Through the introduction of photography, the visual framing of the Victoria Embankment at night became more widespread and this new vision established itself in examples of nocturnal photography in the second half of the 1890s.

In Night Photography, Robert Dykes contemplated when exactly nocturnal photography was first attempted, and believed

the first attempt at a picture of this class was the Houses of Parliament at Night, by Mr. W. M. Edmonds, exhibited and reproduced a year before Mr. Paul Martin made such a great and successful specialty of this subject.[6]

Paul Martin started to photograph the Victoria Embankment in 1895, which would mean Edmonds’s photograph was taken in 1894. It is significant that both these photographers chose the same location to capture the nocturnal city for the first time.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the industrialization of public lighting and the accessibility of the nocturnal city overlapped with the creation of a new vision of London, through certain urban development projects like the Victoria Embankment. The atmospheric experience of this new vision was then manifested in paintings and photography, and the process of its decision making was ardently documented in the press and debated widely by the public, often including emotional responses. Can we read this history of public lighting and its representations as one of collective experience? By construing atmospheres as non-human agents that are historically mobile and bioculturally experienced, the history of emotions provides here a segue into a history of (urban) atmospheres – a history that perhaps differs from the former by scrutinizing place as much as the individuals and their emotions inhabiting it.

This post is part of the ‘Building with Feeling’ series of blog posts.

Note: This text is partly based on a paper I have presented at the Media and the Night conference at McGill University in March 2022, organized by Jess Reia and Will Straw.

Cigdem Talu is a PhD candidate in the School of Architecture at McGill University. Her dissertation focuses on women writers and journalists’ experience in nineteenth-century London, the concept of urban atmospheres, the history of emotions, and urban travel writing. She also works on American writer Shirley Jackson’s life and novels analyzed through architecture; and female agency and set design in 1960s and 70s Italian and Japanese horror cinema. Her research is supported by the Bombardier Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She works as an archival researcher and most recently was the archival researcher of the architecture documentary film City Dreamers. She holds B.Arch, M.Arch, and post-professional M.Arch degrees from Politecnico di Milano and McGill University.

Twitter: @cigdemtalu

[1] Tonino Griffero, Atmospheres: Aesthetics of Emotional Spaces, trans. Sarah de Sanctis (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), p. 28.

[2] Monthly Magazine, 1807, 581, quoted in Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 115.

[3] Charles Dickens, Bleak House (Open Road Integrated Media, Inc., ProQuest Ebook Central, [1853] 1956), p. 587.

[4] George Augustus Sala, ‘Gaslight and Daylight, with Some London Scenes They Shine Upon’, (1859), pp. 156–59.

[5] ‘Lighting by Electricity’, The Morning Post, 29 June 1878, 3.

[6] Robert Dykes, Night Photography (London: Dawbarn & Ward, 1905), p. 9.

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