Emile Zola in London


Emile Zola, the great French writer of the late nineteenth century,  was not a man to smile very often. Every existing photo of him shows a grim faced intellectual concentrating on his art. That is what we expect from a deep thinking French writer. But at the same time we know that he was very enthuastic about the joyful explosion of the visual arts during the last decades of the nineteenth century, and was a friend of many of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists of the time, people like Manet, Degas, Cezanne and Pissarro. Indeed, he was so keen on the visual arts that he became an enthuastic amateur photographer.


The influence of photography on art is well known and is an enormous subject that helps explain the evolution of painting during the second half of the neneteenth century, particularly the realists and  Impressionism. This article looks at the way the realist author of such groundbreaking works as Therese Raquin, Germanil, La Terra, and Nana took up his camera and tried to capture the visual reality he saw around him.


Here is a photograph of Zola with a box camera in what looks like a cold winter's day with snow on the ground.


Zola with camera

Emile Zola with his box camera.


It is very hard to tell exactly what camera Zola is using, but it appears to be a roll film box camera of the type that became generic and that was manufactured in both Germany and Britain.


To understand the story it needs to be said that it started with a fundamental split in the links between all the artists of the time, both visual and literary.  This split strained friendships because it was political and had little to do with the practical issues about art and its role in society. This destructive force was anti-Semitism, which was growing in France at the time.


 Some artists, like Cezanne, Degas, Renoir and Rodin failed to support the cause against the anti-Semitic movement that emerged in France during the 1890s. It is, I believe, a source of shame for them all. Zola, in contrast, stood up against the anti-Semitic movement and was prepared to risk his own standing and freedom for the sake of truth.


Anti-Semitism culminated in the Dreyfus Affair when the army officer and Jew, Alfred Dreyfus, was accused of being a spy and traitor. He was publically humiliated by having his uniform insignia torn off and his sword broken across the knee of a soldier in a prade ground.


Dreyfus was convicted and imprisoned. Zola and a number of enlightened contemporary artists, such as Monet, Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, Signac, Valloton and Luce, understood that this was an anti-Semitic travesty of justice.  They supported Dreyfus and stood up against the anti-Semitic movement. Zola published an open letter to the French President titled "J'accuse ...!".  The result was that Zola was himself accused of being a traitor and was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and a fine of 3000 francs. Rather than go to prison, Zola fled France and came to England, where he lived between February 1898 and the summer of 1899.


Zola was not happy in Britain. He considered it a nasty little country and the food was terrible.  However, he had to make the best of it, so he tried to find a comfortable place to live. Perhaps on advice from friends, he discovered that Upper Norwood, the area around Crystal Palace, was considered desirable.  This might have been because of the fame of the Crystal Palace Exhibition, but also because his friend Camile Pissarro had lived there a few years before.


Love or hate Britain,  Zola was prepared to get out his camera and start taking photographs of this new south London place he found himself in. He and his family rented rooms in The Queen's Hotel in Church Road, Upper Norwood, close by Crystal Palace. At the time the area around Crystal Palace was considered attractive and desirable: it was on high ground with lots of fresh air, it was crowned with a world famous exhibition venue, and it had a new railway line connecting it to the centre of London. In fact, it was the ideal British suburban Metroland before the Metroland concept was evolved.


As a photographer, Zola could be considered a talented amateur. That is, he had a keen visual intellegence, but did not expand it much beyond an awareness of the power of dynamic perspective, a feature he shared with his Impressionist friends, particularly Edgar Degas.


 Powerful perspective movement within an image is fundamental to impressionist art; and it can be linked to Japanese prints which were popular at the time and which are known to have influenced artists as diverse as Manet, Degas and Van Gogh. Look at any Zola photograph and it becomes clear that he is seeking lines of movement that will give energy to the image.


For example, in the photograph below of The Queen's Hotel he puts stress on the oblique view by including a girl striding along with her bicycle to accentuate the dynamic foreground to background movement.


Queen's Hotel, Upper Norwood

Queen's Hotel, Church Road, Upper Norwood. The block at the left of the photograph has been demolished. All that remains is the single story three-arch building that can be seen a few yards to the right of the woman with the bicycle.


Such dynamic movement need not be confined to oblique angles.  In the photograph below of Madame Zola seen through a window of The Queen's Hotel while reading a book, the perspective gives a sudden large foreground to tiny distant background figure movement  characteristic of Japanese prints.


Madame Zola Reading

Madame Zola Reading in the Zola's apartment at the Queen's Hotel.



Detail of Madame Zola Reading.


One of Zola's most imaginative ideas was to show a long road stretching into the distance with a figure crossing at right angles, giving a tension between the far vista and the strident right angle movement of the figure.  The best example is his photograph of Jasper Road, which shows a dog followed by a woman stridently crossing the road before a steep perspective over a distant view of London.


Jasper Road

Emile Zola, photograph of Jasper road.


In cultural history, Zola's photograph of Jasper Road stands out because it is a precursor of one of the most famous images of the 1960s, the photograph of the Beatles crossing Abbey Road in 1969. Zola was there first.


Beatles Abbey Road

The Beatles crossing Abbey Road, 1969.

Much has been made of the fact that three of the Beatles are in step, leading with the left leg, while Paul is leading with his right leg.  It could be pointed out that in the Zola photograph, the forelegs of the dog are exactly in step with the woman, leading with the right leg, while the rear legs are out of step. Conspiricy theorists can make of that what they will!


Below is a picture of Jasper Road as it is today, almost unchanged from the time the Zola photo was taken.


Jasper Road today

Jasper road as it is today.

Photo from Google Street View


Just a street or two away from Jasper Road is Woodland Road, and Zola photographed this with a policeman crossing, but the result is more limp because the position of the policeman's feet does not give the dynamic striding effect. This indicates the way Zola has the vision of what he wants to achieve, even if sometimes it does not quite work,


Woodland Road

Woodland Road.


Woodland Road Today

Woodland Road as it is today.

Photo from Google Street View


Another dynamic view Zola photographed was of a simple row of shops in Church Road, ending in a big brick building with a clock at the critical point of collision.


Church Road

View of Shops in Church Road.


Shops in Church Road today

The same row of shops in Church Road as seen today. Image from Google.

Photo from Google Street View


Westow Street

Westow Street.



Alexandrine Zola in Hermitage Road

Hermitage Road

Hermitage Road today

Image from Google Street View.