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Burdekin’s London Nights

November 5, 2021
by the gentle author

At this time of year, I close the curtains in the late afternoon and settle down to contemplate Harold Burdekin’s nocturnal photography of London, as a celebration of darkness and the city, from the comfort of my old armchair

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

On Christmas Night in the City

Night at the Brick Lane Beigel Bakery

Night in the Bakery at St John

19 Responses leave one →
  1. Elisabeth N. permalink
    November 5, 2021

    Beautiful sapphire photos. Fascinating words, lonely London but always haunted by life more than death. I am very happy that I have found you and your site – so many more wonderful accounts lie before me.

  2. November 5, 2021

    Thanks for sharing … great images .. The night always brings out details you might not see during daytime.

  3. Herry Lawford permalink
    November 5, 2021

    Marvellous! Thanks

  4. November 5, 2021

    Marvelous, phantamasgorical pictures. Otherwordly. Ilove the Regent St. one. Thank you.

  5. Eve permalink
    November 5, 2021

    .. beautiful foggy old London town bathed in misty blue, conjures up many a tale to tell

  6. keithb permalink
    November 5, 2021

    I’m guessing that these are cyanotypes or selenium toned silver chloride prints, and that suggests a large format camera? This strikes me as a definite stylistic choice in the 1930s going against the ‘straight’ approach that was ‘in’ at the time. Nice to see these as an alternative to the Brandt images that are so familiar.

    Painting at night: John Atkinson Grimshaw painted night scenes and recorded the early impact of electric light on city streets. Northern cities including my native Liverpool (before the Pier Head) and Scarborough.

  7. November 5, 2021

    There’s something wonderfully expressionistic about these night-time photos of London’s streets…

    Love & Peace

  8. Peter Hart permalink
    November 5, 2021

    Beautiful photos. Thank you.

  9. Paola Moore permalink
    November 5, 2021

    Thank you for bringing Harold Burdekin’s work blinking into daylight. They are just the most beautiful and atmospheric shots of good old London. There is no litter, no tagging, no traffic or mass of street signs just a tranquility. Thanks again and such a shame he was a casualty as his work and name would be known

  10. November 5, 2021

    Thank you for sourcing and sharing these photographs. They show show considerable skill on the part of Harold Burdekin in maintaining the atmosphere and bringing out the detail in both his negatives and prints.

    Out of interest, were the negatives glass plates or film based?

  11. Su C. permalink
    November 5, 2021

    And I, on the other hand, wake early to claim that same alertness you experience in the late hours, where I am most creative.

    I can hear the silence in these beautiful photos by Burdekin; a shame he didn’t live to enjoy a splendorous wave of recognition.

  12. Ann V permalink
    November 5, 2021

    Utterly beautiful!

  13. Heather Cole permalink
    November 5, 2021

    Hello, Old Thing —

    Gorgeous photos here, that’ll send me off on another adventure of discovery thanks to your wonderful stories.

    Off-topic, but very much on my elderly mind, these days: It would be astounding if the filmic craft could re-discover and make use of this amazing mastery of night-light. So many recent films have been largely shot in virtually utter darkness, diminishing my admiration for the work to the very extent of my not being able to *see* it.

    Anyway— on to the exploration! Thanks, as always.

  14. Lizebeth permalink
    November 5, 2021

    Oh, what wonderful photos. I’ve always wanted to do a 3am walk in my Covent Garden neighbourhood, but being female, that option has been closed to me for many years due to safety concerns. A pleasure to have seen our city as only the cats, foxes, and occasional police constable (in olden days) have been able to observe it.

  15. gkbowood permalink
    November 5, 2021

    I love to read mysteries, especially with British detectives, so these pictures looked like wonderful book covers to me. The Temple Gardens, London Docks and the General Post Office photos made me want to read the mystery these images evoked. Ah well, maybe some enterprising creative writing teachers can hand these out and ask for submissions based on the photos!

  16. November 5, 2021

    Striking images

  17. Bill permalink
    November 5, 2021

    Thank you, Gentle Author, for showing us these highly evocative nocturnes. Glad to know about Burdekin, and thank you for putting me onto the Rest on the Flight to Egypt. Never saw that Rembrandt before, and it is exquisite.

    Kiethb beat me to it re: John Atkinson Grimshaw. Also very soulful.

  18. Mo Solter permalink
    November 6, 2021

    This makes my heart sing! Thank you.

  19. Cherub permalink
    November 6, 2021

    These are beautiful, it’s the deep inky blue colour – it’s like it’s sucking you into each image.

    I am also a night person and I once read it’s to do with what time of day you were born. In my case afternoon, but my husband was born early in the morning. He has to get up as soon as he wakes so there must be some truth in it.

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