Covent Garden market lights inspire a modern day Rembrandt

Hampstead photographer Clive Boursnell explored the markets of the area

In the late 60s and early 70s, photographer Clive Boursnell was living in Hampstead but his heart was in Covent Garden. His love affair with its flower, fruit and vegetable markets began in the late summer of 1968 as he looked down James Street to the Central Market building backlit by a flood of sunlight at about 5am. It would be hard to better his description of the epiphany, written for his new book of photographs Old Covent Garden, from Kentish Town publisher Frances Lincoln (�12.99).

“I don’t recall any sounds with that first vision. I was so taken with the scene before me, it seemed silent. The roadway was a jam of silhouetted trucks; the sun highlighted the heads of buyers and porters pushing and pulling barrows, weaving in and out from dark to light and back to dark. One pavement was in semi-gloom, the other in increasing light. The sun was casting sharp shadows on the buildings like a slightly staggered set of cards at a near-45-degree angle. Nearer the ground, the shop hoardings bounced back at me – an odd letter, part word or name. The balletic arching lamps watched over the produce, casting angular shadows, as cigar smoke caught by the sun was taken upwards.”

Boursnell’s sensitivity to the nuances of light, as revealed in this quote, infuses the black and white and colour photographs in the book – which number almost 300. He mainly used ambient light including truck headlights, streetlamps and shop and office lighting for what he called reportage portraits – close-ups of people working. Subjects picked up on this aspect of his work and he recalls a porter shouting to him, as he was photographing sunlit wet cobblestones, “This photography lark of yours, mate, is like painting with light, in’it, Rembrandt mate!” – to which Boursnell adds, “Rembrandt! I wish.”

He photographed obsessively, not only the markets in full swing but empty streets and shops at the weekends, until the operation transferred to Nine Elms in November 1974. The result is a poignant documentation of a lost world, where jobs were passed down through generations. “Daughters would follow mothers as pea-shellers or celery washers, and gypsy girls and Cockney lasses would buy lavender or violets and bunch them small as they passed through the Flower Market to sell on the streets of London,” Boursnell recalls. Images include female flower porters making runs with their barrows, saleswomen in hairnets and support stockings – and ladies in evening frocks and furs.

Peter Ackroyd provides historical background in his introduction, Boursnell’s preface includes a wealth of technical details and there are also his contemporary interviews with market people. One person’s description of the peripheral characters includes this unsavoury snippet: “There was the ‘catsmeat man’ in the morning. He’d castrate cats with his teeth. He was called the’ Pussy Butcher’.”