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Burdekin’s London Nights

October 28, 2019
by the gentle author

Continuing the nocturnal theme, here is Harold Burdekin’s photography of London nights from 1934

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 the 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

12 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    October 28, 2019

    Beautiful and eerie, like sets from Nosferatu (particularly the first two and last one).

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    October 28, 2019

    Great compositions with wonderful light effects illuminating the darkness…

    And as I have an obsession about the colour blue that makes them even better!

    Stunning photos – thank you.

  3. PennyP permalink
    October 28, 2019

    Bill Sykes and Bullseye would look at home in the first photo. Wonderful – thank you.

  4. October 28, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, I am a morning gal, but I can appreciate these beautiful, haunting night images.

    My favorites are “St Bartholomew’s Hospital,” Smithfield and “Temple Gardens.”

  5. October 28, 2019

    Wonderful photos. Valerie

  6. October 28, 2019

    A magical deserted nocturnal London. Cats also like the night.

  7. Sue permalink
    October 28, 2019

    Absolutely stunning, thank you.

  8. Pauline Taylor permalink
    October 28, 2019

    Brilliant, these show the art of photography at its best, and Jim has taken the words out of my mouth, they are beautiful and eerie at the same time.

    It is always a treat to hear that you, GA, are also a night bird, join the club, I am always still up and about and working until well past midnight when solving a problem or dreaming up a project will always come so much more easily to mind. If only one could do gardening in the dark life would be much easier.

  9. October 28, 2019

    So evocative!

  10. Caro McAdam permalink
    October 28, 2019

    Hello from another night bird! These are fabulous.. dream-like.. and so wonderful that he captured them before the bombing in WW2.. Thank you!

  11. October 28, 2019

    Reminds that night once had more depth of meaning…and silence. These are incredible images. Enveloping….

  12. Pimlico Pete permalink
    October 28, 2019

    It was a highly enjoyable runaround hunting down the location for photo number 3 “Street Corner”. It’s the Rose & Crown pub on the corner of London House Yard, just north of the entrance steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. In the background we see one of the warehouse buildings of Hitchcock, Williams & Co.

    The pub is marked PH on the Ordnance Survey of 1896 but is unmarked on OS 1953 when much of the area had been damaged or destroyed as a result of the Blitz.

    It gets a mention in Proceedings of the Old Bailey of 1878; a customer had committed cheque fraud here and elsewhere in London.

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