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Burdekin’s London Nights

November 22, 2022
by the gentle author

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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

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Christine permalink
    November 22, 2022

    What lovely atmospheric photos of London x

  2. Paul Loften permalink
    November 22, 2022

    Haunting and atmospheric photos of the nighttime London of my memories. I had occasion to stop at Micks Cafe in Fleet Street a few times . If you were wondering where the missing night time people were , they probably could be found there .
    Thank you GA for your work in brining these photos to us

  3. November 22, 2022

    Fantastic, splendid, fantasmagorical, so very London as we imagined the city when reading 19th century novels.

  4. Milo permalink
    November 22, 2022

    Absolutely gorgeous.

  5. Maggie permalink
    November 22, 2022

    Always dread return of dark Winter nights, but then find I’m fascinated by the power of light through the darkness. Moonlight nights a bonus of course. Thanks for sharing these stunning and atmospheric views of our historic capital city.

  6. November 22, 2022

    Among paintings, Birge Harrison is among a blood-line that includes Charles Hoffbauer, Everett Shinn, and his colleague, John Sloan. None, however, specialized in an after-hours programme. (Their days were much too busy for that). Of them all – perhaps unjustly, John Sloan might prompt a bleary-eyed recognition. (His “Election Night” – a title that is, in part, my own – might, in the absence of electronic media, have achieved iconic status. Yet movies do just as well, with crowd scenes, as Sloan ever did and they have won whatever race in which most of them come out on top). Shin’s influence was, for a time, more penetrating. (His “Eviction” – a title that rings true, but may fall short of the one Shinn (or an editor) gave it – dramatizes a moment readers of the magazine in which it appeared dreaded less than its victims. Yet its casual brutality – which seems a little harsher in a world that is still wide-awake – hits home).

    Hoffbauer’s night-scenes are the electrifying moments with which Shinn and Sloan were intimately familiar, and painted as well. Yet Hoffbauer’s are the wide-eyed things these two other men would never produce.

    I do ‘em as well. Yet they have not mellowed as these other painters’ have. And I should not live among them.

  7. November 22, 2022

    In my little essay, please substitute “painters” for “painting”. And, if you want to split hairs, a dash should appear after “unjustly perhaps” – unless I mean “perhaps unjustly”.

  8. November 22, 2022

    What a wonderful blue nightscape of London you have given us, atmospheric and quite gorgeous.
    Like you, I am a night bird, coming alive after dark and hiding away from the light in the mornings. I sometimes wonder if there is not some vampire in me!
    When I lived in London I used to love visiting Covent Garden at night and around the dock areas. All much safer then. I doubt if I could do that now.

  9. November 22, 2022

    In the eyes of THIS beholder, at least, the top photo and the concluding photo both look like amazing stage settings. I’m sitting in the audience, as the blue velvet curtain comes up, and the orchestra begins a skittering ominous undertone. Then, a series of footsteps. A tall figure wrapped in a flowing cape steps into one of those blazing shafts of cobalt light, and the drama begins.

    Thank you for these nocturnal images, on this crisp sunny morning in the Hudson River Valley!

  10. Ann V permalink
    November 22, 2022


  11. Marcia Howard permalink
    November 22, 2022

    Amazing images

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