The mighty V&A began collecting photographs way back in the 1850s. Today, the museum has more than 300,000 photos in its archive, dating from 1839 to the present. Martin Barnes is the V&A's Senior Curator of Photographs, which means he's one of the best placed people in the country to come up with a list of iconic London shots. Here he shares his favourites and tells us why he loves them. You'll also see a few of these awesome images in our 40 best photos of London ever taken feature. Enjoy!
M de St Croix: Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square, 1839
'This daguerreotype is the oldest photograph in the V&A collection and among the first made in England. It was taken by a Monsieur de Ste Croix as a public demonstration just weeks after Louis Daguerre’s announcement of photography in January 1839. The incredibly detailed image, reversed through the process to appear as in a mirror, shows the statue of King Charles I in the foreground and the Royal Banqueting House in the distance. Figures can be seen seated at the railings below the statue, and the top hat of a man, possibly a handsome cab driver, can be made out on the left. Could these be the first Londoners ever photographed? The photographer was standing in Trafalgar Square with his back towards the National Gallery at a time when Nelson’s column had not yet been built.'
Stephen Ayling: Westminster, Henry VII Chapel Exterior and Westminster Hall, 1867
'By positioning himself high up on the outside of Westminster Abbey, Stephen Ayling captured two Gothic style buildings sitting side-by-side. In the foreground we see the early sixteenth-century Henry VII Chapel, part of Westminster Abbey. Beyond it, at the right, is the Palace of Westminster designed by Charles Barry and A.W.N. Pugin and begun in 1835. This photograph combines past and modern history and highlights stylistic and visual connections between the two buildings. The physical size of the original print is impressive – 41.5 x 55.5 cm – the same size as the unwieldy "mammoth plate" glass negative from which it was made.'
William Strudwick: St Paul's and The George Inn Borough, from the series Old London: Views by W Strudwick, 1860-68
'Strudwick was born in London in 1834 on Edgware Road and lived in Lambeth and West Dulwich. He acted as a photographic storekeeper at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but also worked as a draftsman, architect, and sculptor and wrote comic poetry. Henry Cole, the founding director of the V&A, encouraged the purchase of Strudwick’s series of photographs titled Old London: Views by W. Strudwick. The series is around 50 in total and was purchased from the photographer in 1869. It documents the old cityscape, including the East End’s medieval coaching inns prior to their demolition to make way for the railways, and the riverside shortly before the construction of the Embankment. His views from the river banks show the traffic of steam and sail boats, barges and working warehouses. His street scenes are populated by tradesmen paused in their activities unloading barrels from horse-drawn carts and groups of Dickensian urchins staring at the camera. Strudwick’s project echoes other similar survey initiatives at this time which recognised photography as the quintessential medium to save from oblivion what was about to disappear. In 1910, Lambeth Archives acquired a set of Strudwick’s photographs, the same year that he was admitted as a pauper to Croydon workhouse where he died.'
Edgar Scamell: Baked Potatoes, about 1895
'This baked potato seller was photographed as part of a series of street hawkers and London street scenes included in the National Photographic Record and Survey (1897–1910), a project to create a national memory bank of Britain’s ancient and local customs, ceremonies and buildings. The National Photographic Record Association was founded in 1897 by politician and amateur photographer Sir Benjamin Stone. He enlisted supporters from local camera clubs to help form an archive of over 5,000 prints.'
Henry Irving: Ginko (Maidenhair) Tree, Kew, November/July, about 1900
'Despite its remarkable and consistent quality, Irving’s work has long gone unnoticed. He mastered platinum printing and worked methodically on large series of images showing botanical specimens at London’s Kew Gardens. His photographs were exhibited during his lifetime at the Royal Photographic Society and used as illustrations for a number of publications, including Flowers and Plants for Designers and Schools (1907).'
Robert Brownjohn: From the series Street Level, 1961
'In the course of a single day Robert Brownjohn made 137 photographs of London street signs. Their vernacular urban typography inspired his own practice as a designer and filmmaker. The images were published in the magazine Typographica in 1961 as the picture story "Street-Level". Brownjohn wrote: "They show what weather, wit, accident, lack of judgment, bad taste, bad spelling, necessity and good loud repetition can do to put a sort of music into the streets where we walk.".'
Stephen Gill: From the series Talking to Ants, 2009
'Gill sourced objects and creatures from the streets of East London for this series. He placed them directly into the body of his camera, exposing the film and material simultaneously. He explains: "I hoped through this method to encourage the spirit of the place to clamber aboard the images and be encapsulated in the film emulsion, like objects embedded in amber. My aim was to evoke the feeling of the area at the same time as describing its appearance as the subject was both in front and behind the camera lens at the same moment.".'
Rut Blees Luxemburg: Nach Innen/In Deeper, 1999
'The title of this photograph of steps leading down to the river Thames is based on a quote by philosopher Roland Barthes: "To get out, go in deeper." Luxemburg is known for nocturnal urban images using long exposures to capture the city in the eerie glow of street lights. Instead of describing actual locations, her photographs evoke psychological and mythical spaces filled with reflection, traces and reverie.'
Check out the rest of our 40 best photos of London ever taken.