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London Night

February 24, 2013
by the gentle author

East End Riverside

As you will have realised by now, I am a night bird. In the mornings, I stumble around in a bleary-eyed stupor of incomprehension and in the afternoons I wince at the sun. But as darkness falls my brain begins to focus and, by the time others are heading to their beds, then I am growing alert and settling down to write.

Once I used to go on night rambles – to the railway stations to watch them loading the mail, to the markets to gawp at the hullabaloo and to Fleet St to see the newspaper trucks rolling out with the early editions. These days, such nocturnal excursions are rare unless for the sake of writing a story, yet I still feel the magnetic pull of the dark city streets beckoning, and so it was with a deep pleasure of recognition that I first gazed upon this magnificent series of inky photogravures of ”London Night” by Harold Burdekin from 1934 in the Bishopsgate Library.

For many years, it was a subject of wonder for me – as I lay awake in the small hours – to puzzle over the notion of whether the colours which the eye perceives in the night might be rendered in paint. This mystery was resolved when I saw Rembrandt’s “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” in the National Gallery of Ireland, perhaps finest nightscape in Western art.

Almost from the beginning of the medium, night became a subject for photography with John Adams Whipple taking a daguerrotype of the moon through a telescope in 1839, but it was not until the invention of the dry plate negative process in the eighteen eighties that night photography really became possible. Alfred Stieglitz was the first to attempt this in New York in the eighteen nineties, producing atmospheric nocturnal scenes of the city streets under snow.

In Europe, night photography as an idiom in its own right begins with George Brassaï who depicted the sleazy after-hours life of the Paris streets, publishing “Paris de Nuit” in 1932.  These pictures influenced British photographers Harold Burdekin and Bill Brandt, creating “London Night” in 1934 and “A Night in London” in 1938, respectively. Harold Burdekin’s work is almost unknown today, though his total eclipse by Bill Brandt may in part be explained by the fact that Burdekin was killed by a flying bomb in Reigate in 1944 and never survived to contribute to the post-war movement in photography.

More painterly and romantic than Brandt, Burdekin’s nightscapes propose an irresistibly soulful vision of the mythic city enfolded within an eternal indigo night. How I long to wander into the frame and lose myself in these ravishing blue nocturnes.

Black Raven Alley, Upper Thames St

Street Corner

Temple Gardens

London Docks

From Villiers St

General Post Office, King Edward St

Leicester Sq

Middle Temple Hall

Regent St

St Helen’s Place, Bishopsgate

George St, Strand

St Botolph’s and the City

St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Smithfield

Images courtesy © Bishopsgate Institute

You might like to read these other nocturnal stories

The Nights of Old London

On Christmas Night in the City

Night at the Brick Lane Beigel Bakery

Night at The Spitalfields Market, 1991

Night in the Bakery at St John

On the Rounds With The Spitalfields Milkman

28 Responses leave one →
  1. February 24, 2013

    They are absolutely beautiful, aren’t they? To me they’re crying out to be book covers for a wonderful series of London novels.

  2. February 24, 2013

    Great pictures.

  3. February 24, 2013

    Wonderfully evocative photos: I particularly enjoy the shafts of muted light in the one of St. Bartholomew’s. I wonder. though, if London is now ever as deserted at night as it appears in these images?

  4. February 24, 2013

    So beautiful

  5. Ros permalink
    February 24, 2013

    Excellent post and pictures. ‘Street Corner’ looks like an Edward Hopper.

  6. sprite permalink
    February 24, 2013

    [i]enfolded within
    an eternal indigo night
    the mythic city[i/]
    as footsteps resonate still
    from unwritten stories

    sprite

    one of the best series so far!

  7. Gary permalink
    February 24, 2013

    Beautiful pictures of a byegone age where light came from tungsten lights.
    Impossible to achieve in todays sodium glare.
    Gary

  8. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    February 24, 2013

    Those are wonderful,I love the old London it had so much character.As a country person the new London looks nightmarish to me!

  9. February 24, 2013

    These are wonderful. They really capture that ghostly quiet and mysterious quality of late night streets. Thanks for such a wonderful share!

  10. February 24, 2013

    These magnificent photo’s filled with atmosphere and mystery take on a profound beauty that fills me with longing to wander the sights, especially at night, my favourite time too, I do not do well in mornings, sunny days, so I can appreciate these photo’s deeply.
    I endorse what Jane said, they do really deserve to be part of a library of london bound books of this particular historic area.

    And the contribution of Sprite was sublime.

    I adore reading all in the Spittlefield series, thank you.

  11. Peter Holford permalink
    February 24, 2013

    They may not be realistic colours but that lends them a painterly quality that could be called art. I remember when the yellow sodium lights were introduced (1950s) and as a young boy I found it very disconcerting that I could not make out the true colour of many familiar street items. After some years I didn’t notice any more and you forget what you have lost. Recently we have had our street lights replaced with modern energy efficient ones – they are nearer to the old traditional lighting and it has made our area a much more appealing place at night. Back to the old days!

  12. February 24, 2013

    cyanotypes?

  13. February 24, 2013

    Very Dickensian. He was quite the night owl himself. Just 73 years prior to the Burdakin images, Dickens published his essay “Night Walks.” I love London, it is my favorite city in the world. Thanks for this beautiful piece.

  14. February 25, 2013

    I too am a nightbird so I connected with this – on two accounts.
    I grew up in Manhattan in NYC and treasured going out with my dad as a young child to go get ice cream or a late night snack. Iit seemed as if the street lights were double fold – shining above our heads yet also reflected in the chrome of the cars and the puddles in the street; and then there were the headlights of the passing cars. I still flash back on this from time to time when out out in the city at night.
    My second point of connection is the two years I loved in London in the early 70′s , going out every night with the love of my life to this pub and that, our schedule dictated by wherever our favorite band was playing.
    Thank you for waking up this old lady!

  15. Susan Goldman permalink
    February 25, 2013

    A wonderful collection. So atmospheric. Thank you.

  16. Jake Seaman permalink
    February 25, 2013

    Wonderful as always – London looks so beautiful.

  17. Shelley Johnson permalink
    February 25, 2013

    Great piece, amazing photos.

  18. February 25, 2013

    These images evoke a sense of peace and calm although they are of a bustling city like London.

  19. February 25, 2013

    “How I long to wander into the frame and lose myself in these ravishing blue nocturnes.”

    thanks again and again and again gentle author , you true hero of the poetic thought.

  20. Cherub permalink
    February 27, 2013

    Fascinated by the image of Black Raven Alley as I worked a stone’s throw from Upper/Lower Thames St in the 80s and early 90s – I guess it was gone by then? You can almost see villains from Sherlock Holmes lurking in these images.

  21. Tony permalink
    May 8, 2013

    I like these pics. I have lived in London all my life. It isn’t a beautiful city like Venice or somewhere all pretty pretty. And thank God for that! It’s a mass of everything, it’s a jumble, an evolving place, always changing, and that is good. Let’s be careful we aren’t constantly wanting to preserve everything at any cost. It’s a fine line.

  22. Goodnight Vienna permalink
    October 2, 2013

    Such beautiful photographs – thank you for bring them to us. I would love a series of prints on one of my walls *hints*

  23. October 2, 2013

    I know the air was really polluted back when these were taken, but it really lends itself to producing some beautiful light,

  24. Andrew Medhurst permalink
    February 17, 2014

    Absolutely beautiful. Lovely shades of blue.

  25. Mike Charlton permalink
    January 30, 2015

    These sublime pictures look like photos of film or theatre sets, they seem so distant from any night-time photos of London that could be taken today. I love them!

  26. December 18, 2015

    I have often meant to comment on this amazing website. It makes beautiful reading material
    and the photos are truly astounding. I used to work down Upper Thames Street in the sixties
    and saw the very company (photo taken from the river Thames in 1920) O’Brien Thomas.
    And when I was 15 my very first job was with Kearley & Tonge, in Mitre Square. The scene
    of a Jack the Ripper murder. Another photo in this section is a ship not unlike a Nelson Line ship, the merchant shipping company my Father worked for. And I’ve experienced the fogs and smogs of London where you couldn’t see a hand in front of your face and in the end the grey,
    yellowy thickness would make your eyes ache.
    What wonderful, wonderful atmospheric photos.
    Finally I wrote a poem (Just had one printed in a poetry club magazine) I was inspired by your good selves to write it. Entitled The Tale od Old London, I would love you to read it sometime.

    Kind regards, Marion

  27. Malcolm permalink
    January 7, 2016

    I saw these magnificent gravure prints at an exhibition many years ago somewhere in Farringdon, it may have been the London Metropolitan Archive or another library. They really were astonishingly beautiful. Fabulous blue photogravures that seemed to float in their own space as if they were portals into another time that you could walk into. Probably the best London photographs I’ve ever seen, real works of art. The closest thing to how I imagine the London of Dickens. Bill Brandt’s London pictures come close but they don’t have the poetic light or soul of these. There is a copy of the very rare book in the London Met Archive too.

  28. christine naylor permalink
    March 3, 2017

    Loved these…may I ask how you managed to get the Regent Street photo.where did you take this from?.thank you

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