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Harold Burdekin’s London Night

October 25, 2015
by the gentle author

Since the clocks went back an hour last night, the dusk will come more quickly each day now and I publish Harold Burdekin’s nocturnal photography of London as a celebration of darkness and the city

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

16 Responses leave one →
  1. October 25, 2015

    The photos took me on a magical journey today – they are wonderful. Valerie

  2. October 25, 2015

    Spectacular and gloriously moody. Thanks for posting these!

  3. gabrielle permalink
    October 25, 2015

    Such evocative photos…Thanks for bringing them to light!

  4. Jonathan Taylor permalink
    October 25, 2015

    These are stunning images.
    The printing method and the blue definitely adds to the mystery of the peopleless night, presumably looking that way from the long exposures he would have used.
    Thank you so much for bringing this to us.
    Jonathan

  5. October 25, 2015

    Is the view ‘From Villiers St’ of Watergate Walk next to Gordon’s Wine Bar?

  6. October 25, 2015

    Stunning photographs. The way the light fans out in the one of St Bartholomew’s is amazing. By the way, Rembrandt’s Rest on the flight into Egypt reminds me of one of my favourite paintings, a nightscape by Richard Dadd; it can be viewed here: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pd/r/dadd,_the_halt_in_the_desert.aspx

  7. Sue permalink
    October 25, 2015

    Stunning photographs, thank you for sharing them with us.

  8. October 25, 2015

    Simply wonderful. Thank you for enriching our lives!

  9. October 25, 2015

    Marvelous, evocative and moody images. Thank you for highlighting them.

    I’m very partial to the silvery night paintings of Victorian artist John Atkinson Grimshaw, such as ‘Greenwich Half Tide’ http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/full.php?ID=181515 Whistler said of him, ‘I considered myself the inventor of Nocturnes until I saw Grimmy’s moonlit pictures.’

  10. Jill permalink
    October 25, 2015

    Lovely, atmospheric. But am I alone in expecting Dr Who to appear around a corner? William Hartnell’s era, I think.

  11. Jude permalink
    October 25, 2015

    All atmospheric but particularly like St Botolph.

  12. October 25, 2015

    Wonderful indigo inky shots and Regent Street looks like a river! Thank you GA for these hidden nighttime city shots!

  13. October 25, 2015

    On the 17th April 1951 I went to my first day of my working life to 35 Great St Helens Bishopsgate, EC3, Is this the St Helens Bishopsgate shown in that photograph? It doesn’t seem to strike any cords in my memory.

  14. October 27, 2015

    Marvellous photographs.

  15. October 28, 2015

    Superb! Has the ‘Street Corner’ been identified?

  16. Stephen Barker permalink
    December 5, 2015

    Beautiful photographs, the light effects and composition are wonderful. There is something mysterious about towns and cities in the small hours of the night.

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