Historic Covent Garden visuals

Long unseen images by a young photographer learning his trade recall a commercial and social culture that has disappeared. Hugh Pearman is touched by their evocation of a time when London’s bustling streetscape could be a haven of tranquility

My heart sank at first. Oh god, not another picture book about a picturesque corner of London, especially over-hyped Covent Garden. Then it leapt right back up. How wrong I was. Very rapidly I became completely absorbed. Now I am recommending it effusively to anyone who will listen. This is not only a fascinating book – and exhibition, in mid-June – it is an act of photographic salvage and a very valuable historic record.

It depicts the real, white London working class – impoverished, fiercely self-reliant, a remarkable cocktail of European racial stock – going about its ancient business in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For all the Foden lorries and Ford Transits, and the occasional short skirt and flared trousers, the atmosphere is much earlier, practically Dickensian. There are high desks and ledgers, handcarts and cloth caps, gas lights, horses and carts, people who remember King Edward scuttling to an assignation with Lily Langtry. Even at the time, this was a throwback world.

The then-young photographer Clive Boursnell became obsessed with the market and its traders for several years, from 1968. He got up as early as they did, captured their lives and their surroundings, became one of the extended family – trusted by everyone, as invisible as a man could be with a mop of long hair and three Hasselblads slung round his neck. Curious visitors would occasionally ask the Beadle – the market’s enforcer – to be let in out of hours, and point to Boursnell prowling around inside. ‘Oh, ‘im,’ replied the Beadle. ‘He can go anywhere he likes. I can’t stop ‘im.’

Boursnell, anything but a fair-weather photographer, liked shooting in the rain. He also returned at weekends to record a completely deserted district, right in the heart of London. Hardly anyone outside the market world went there, except the dossers lighting fires in the portico of St Paul’s Church, or the upper crust scuttling past its edges to go to the opera. Though ballerina Margot Fonteyn was a big favourite with the traders, and Boursnell was allowed in by the Covent Garden Opera House’s doorman for illicit evenings of culture, peering at the stage from behind the side-screens.

Much as I like the people photos, somehow it is the shots of the deserted weekend Covent Garden that are most telling. The street outside the Tube station, which is now so heaving with tourists and shoppers that they frequently have to close the station on safety grounds, is depicted empty. No cars, no yellow lines painted on the road, no activity of any kind but for a few scraps of litter and a pigeon fluttering across. Strange to think that somewhere so central was so overlooked for so long – although plans to demolish and rebuild the whole area were already drawing the attention of the conservation movement. They won, but much was lost nonetheless. Cafés and candle shops can never replace the extraordinary energy of a real market. Peter Ackroyd talks a little about this in his introduction, but he’s unnecessary here/ Boursnell is all you need.

Then learning his trade as a professional photographer, he was meticulous. He framed his two-and-a-quarter-inch square shots precisely, never cropping the finished image. He used mostly fine-grain film stock, shot at what seem dangerously slow speeds – 1/15th of a second being his favourite. He wasn’t afraid of things going a bit fuzzy occasionally. It seems odd, given that so many of his photographs were shot from the hip rather than being formally set up on a tripod, that he rejected the more easily-handled 35mm format, but posterity is the winner from that – the larger format transparencies just enlarge better.

And then he went off and did other things, and the squares of celluloid went into a sealed box for the next 35 years. They almost got lost on one occasion, and Boursnell admits to being surprised that anyone was interested in seeing them again. He felt a sense of dread exhuming them, as if they represented part of his life that he’d closed the door on. But in that box lay riches. What he had succeeded in doing was not just capturing the character of the place and its people in its final years, but in ennobling it. His aim was not to depict squalor but the life that triumphs over squalor. To paint with light, as all the best photographers do.

Now the images have also been digitised, so the record is doubly preserved. For my money, Boursnell’s work is as valuable as that of Walter Sickert’s, who painted the music halls and prostitutes of Edwardian London with an equally obsessive eye. These observers remind us of the way city districts rise and fall. Personally, I’d love to see Covent Garden deserted at weekends again. But for that to happen, we’d all be out of work.

Covent Garden: the Fruit, Vegetable and Flower Markets, by Clive Boursnell, introduction by Peter Ackroyd, is published by Frances Lincoln on 12 June, price £20. An exhibition of Clive Boursnell’s photographs takes place at No 1 The Piazza, Covent Garden, London WC2 from 13-21June, 11am-7pm, free entry

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