The author of a forthcoming alternative history of London finds echoes of writers past in a post-futurist landscape inspired by the 1920s Manhattan skyline

  • Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, 'The Soul of the Soulless City ('New York - an Abstraction')' 1920
    Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson
    The Soul of the Soulless City ('New York - an Abstraction') 1920
    Oil on canvas
    support: 915 x 608 mm

    Presented by the Patrons of British Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation 1998© Tate

I first saw Christopher Nevinson’s The Soul of the Soulless City (‘New York – an Abstraction’) 1920 on a rain-spattered Monday evening as the summer waned. At Tate Britain I had been hoping to find something related to my specialist area of 18th century London to write about. But possibly because I’d visited New York twice the previous year, my imagination was captured not by Hogarth or Canaletto, but by Nevinson’s part abstraction of Manhattan, in which a city built for speed lies frozen in stillness.

Staring at the elevated wooden railroad that shoots through the rooftops, I began to feel a little dizzy, as though I were about to be whisked forwards, swept around the corner, and plunged into the heart of the metropolis, where I’d be swallowed alive. Mine would be a silent and unmourned death. The steam-swirled skyscrapers – the highest buildings in the world when Nevinson made his preliminary sketches in 1919 – would remain brutally indifferent to my plight, and, from the looks of things, there wouldn’t be a soul around to notice.

This absence of people I read figuratively, a reflection upon how alone we are in big cities, particularly when we visit them for the first time (‘this city powerfully lonely when you are on your own,’ observes the narrator in Samuel Selvon’s novel The Lonely Londoners of 1956), but even after that, as we walk through streets, squares, churchyards and alleys, a stranger to everyone but ourselves. Cities depersonalise us, Nevinson seems to be saying, grinding down our individuality until we’re just lonely, ordered specks like the windows of the skyscrapers in the distance. Into my mind, also, fell Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who, fresh from murdering two elderly women on the fourth floor of a St Petersburg tenement block in a nihilist orgy, escapes into the streets where ‘he was obliterated like a grain of sand’.

Between the skyscrapers you can just make out the sky, the only glimpse of the natural world in a suffocatingly man-made environment. Its deep shade of blue conjures up the feel of three o’clock in the afternoon, which, as any writer will tell you, is the most depressing time of day, as the spell of caffeine wears off and you’re invaded by a sense of listlessness. I remembered how George Orwell had called it ‘the lonely hour’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and somewhere at the back of my mind, a tiny light bulb pinged. I’d seen this painting before, on the tattered front cover of my friend’s copy of Orwell’s book when backpacking around eastern Europe.

I later discover that Nevinson was a friend of HG Wells and even published his own futuristic disaster novel, Exodus AD, in 1934. His interest in dystopian fiction clearly bled into The Soul of the Soulless City, I concluded in smug academic rigour from my seat in the British Library; its impersonal, overbearing quality evokes an urban world built not to liberate people but to crush them, like ‘a boot stamping on a human face forever’.

But, returning to the gallery a few days later, this doesn’t feel right. I couldn’t quite imagine those shimmering skyscrapers as bastions of the Inner Party, crawling with ‘little beetle-like men’ spying on the populace, rewriting history, or turning people into ‘non-persons’. I wondered whether Nevinson hadn’t in fact been mesmerised by the beauty of the city across the ocean in 1919. He had declared that ‘the skyscrapers are the most artistic things that the United States gives to the world’, and titled the painting more pejoratively only after he’d fallen out of love with the city in the early 1930s after failing to win the recognition he thought he deserved from the New York art world. Untainted by the maelstrom of hell that had ripped through Europe during the First World War, I sensed that New York had reawakened Nevinson’s futurist sensibilities, which had lain dormant since the war, as it proved that man and machine could work together to produce the gleaming metropolis of tomorrow rather than destroying millions of young lives. In spite of the later Orwellian association, his original vision wasn’t necessarily damning.

As I slope back through the streets of mournful Pimlico, I think of Quinn, the disturbed protagonist in part one of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy. He is able to obliterate his worries by mindlessly wandering the streets of New York and melting into his impersonal surroundings, usurping the ‘sovereignty of inwardness’ and ‘drowning himself out of himself’. I almost succeed in mimicking him, but then my iPhone vibrates and I come crashing back down to earth

The Soul of the Soulless City (‘New York – an Abstraction’) was presented by the Patrons of British Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation in 1998 and is on display at Tate Britain.

Want to navigate this painting in the virtual world? Tate has teamed up with computer game Minecraft to explore this and other Tate works.

Matthew Green is a writer and historian based in London. He is the Director of Unreal City Audio, producing immersive historical tours of London. His Time Traveller’s London Handbook will be published by Penguin, June 2015.