Early photographs of London

Books containing early photographs of London.

As the new art of photography evolved in the 19th century photographers and reporters gained access to the camera; a tool that could record and report on daily life. For the first time this new picture-making device allowed images of the lives of ordinary people to be captured and recorded with a level of detail not seen before.

Before the arrival of photography artist such as William Hogarth (1697-1764) had depicted something of the lives of Londoners in paintings and engravings.  In the early nineteenth century newspapers, such as The Illustrated London News, presented the world in detailed engravings. With the invention of the camera, the photographer, often alongside a reporter, began to record and publish photographs of the world with relative ease. It was the birth of documentary photography.

M de St Croix, London

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

It is believed that the earliest photograph of London is this one by the French maker of daguerreotype images, M de St Croix. He was creating these images in London in 1839. This view is of Parliament Street viewed from Trafalgar Square. This is the oldest photograph in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection in London.

Soon books of photography began to be published, such as Street Life in London, published in 1876. Street Life in London has been reprinted in modern editions, but the London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Digital Library in London has now published the photographs on their website. Click here to see this remarkable set of photographs.

You can also read the entire book Street Life in London on the LSE Digital Library.

Living London

Another set of books that contain a wonderful set of early photographs of London is the three volume set Living London, Its work and its play, its humour and its pathos, its sights and its scenes. published in c.1901.

Living London, George R Sims

Living London: Arrival of waitresses at a City restaurant, City Express Omnibus and Outside King’s Cross Station.

The most remarkable aspect of the Living London books is their early use of candid reporting photography; photographs that were not staged and did not require the subjects to remain still. The photographs in Living London are snapshots. They capture street scenes where the people are moving and alive. Look closely at these pictures and you can see wonderful detail in the backgrounds, and insights into what London life was like in the late 1890s.

In the prologue of Living London George R. Sims states:
With pen and pencil, with camera and snapshot, those who are associated with this work have laid every phase of London life under contribution. Wherever photography has been practicable it has been relied upon, because no other process of reproduction is at once so actual and so convincing.

Living London is also wonderful to read. Its articles cover a wide range of subjects from poverty, to a trial at the Old Bailey, Christmas in London, waterside London, Holloway Prison, artistic London, ethnic communities and more, giving detailed insight into London in the late nineteenth century.

The Pageant of the Century – photographing other parts of Britain

The Pageant of the CenturyThis book, The Pageant of the Century, is a single volume full of photographs of the period 1900 to 1933. It focuses more on the entire United Kingdom rather than just London but has the most wonderful photographs of early vehicles. These rare pictures uniquely show the transition from horse-drawn transport to the first days of the motor car.  The Pageant of the Century also covers the Boar War, the First World War, the Royal Family and social life in Britain over just thirty three years.

The early photographs make these books so valuable as a record of London and life in Britian.

We have written this article with the aim of finding and preserving these important books. We will add more information as we find and research these fascinating books.

Living London, George R Sims

Living London: Berwick Street on a Sunday Morning. This is still a bustling street in London’s Soho.

Living London, George R Sims

Living London: Selecting a pet at a cat’s home.

Living London, George R Sims

Living London: Waiting for free meals.

The Pageant of the Century

The Pageant of the Century: Showing the first view of a motor car in Southend, Essex.

Click here to see the photography books in our bookstore.

Article by Christopher Sharville, 2018. If you spot any inaccuracies please get in touch. We are always willing to learn more.