Skip to content

Burdekin’s London Nights

December 6, 2023
by the gentle author

Click here order a signed copy of The Gentle Author’s ON CHRISTMAS DAY for £10


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

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Cherub permalink
    December 6, 2023

    These are stunning, so atmospheric. The East London ones made me think of Oliver Twist.

  2. December 6, 2023

    This series evoked strands of music for me. Although each one of these looks like a stunning
    backdrop for an Opera (can’t you just imagine the characters stepping into the scene, also bathed in deep blue?) I think of Duke Ellington, picking his way through “Mood Indigo”.

    “You ain’t been blue
    Till you had that mood indigo”

    Ahhhhh, Sir Duke — Take us up to the stars.

  3. Winnie permalink
    December 6, 2023

    These are absolutely marvellous.

  4. C Scofield permalink
    December 6, 2023

    Each photo is a dreamy one

  5. December 8, 2023

    These are very atmospheric images. I had to confess that I needed to do some research into photogravures which was fascinating. The blue light really does resemble moonlight. You expect Bill Sykes and his dog to appear from a dingy courtyard.
    I am also a night owl, but usually to watch wildlife rather than to wander nocturnal London.

  6. Laura Carr permalink
    December 8, 2023

    Stunning photographs of long ago. It’s striking how clean everywhere looks with no crisp packets, cans or plastic bottles. It looks so peaceful too.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS