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Edwin SmithA Genius Rediscovered
A Genius Rediscovered
During the 1950s and 1960s, Edwin Smith established his reputation as one of Britain’s foremost topographical and architectural photographers1 to such an extent that an admiring John Betjeman was moved to declare him ‘a genius at photography’2. Yet even by the time of his premature death from cancer in 1971, Smith’s standing had become less assured, with many viewing his romantic, picturesque style as increasingly anachronistic in the light of the emergence of a new hard-edged school of photography more attuned to the événements and social turbulence of the period. Even the subsequent untiring efforts of his widow and former collaborator, Olive Cook, to promote his work were unable to arrest this fall from critical grace with the result that – until recently – he has remained largely shunned by the photographic establishment. Yet today there are signs that his photography is on the cusp of a revival.
Generously bequeathed by Cook to the British Architectural Library at the Royal Institute of British Architects on her death in 2002, Smith’s archive is now publicly available for the first time and has undergone an extensive programme of conservation, cataloguing, digitisation and publication. His inclusion in Tate Britain’s exhibition ‘How We Are: Photographing Britain from the 1840s to the Present’, in 2007, represented an important further stage in his rehabilitation, and the current show at Chris Beetles – the first devoted to his work for many years – is but one indication of a burgeoning appreciation of his imagery. This appreciation has been aided by an awakening interest in the post-war decades in general and the Neo-Romantic movement in particular, a movement to which Smith’s photography bears a close affinity. Above all, the themes underlying Smith’s work are once again matters for impassioned cultural debate: an empathetic response to, and concern for, the preservation of the countryside and our built heritage buttressed by an unremitting antipathy to inappropriate development and the numbing standardisation that erodes subtle regional variations.
Smith was born into humble circumstances in Camden Town, London, in 1912. After an abortive attempt to forge a career as an architect, he took up photography professionally in the mid 1930s with the help and encouragement of the artist, Paul Nash, and the folk art expert, Enid Marx. While the influence of Nash was obvious in his pictures of blasted trees and the eerily contorted shapes to be found in nature, Smith’s pre-war work was diverse, embracing as it did landscape, architecture, found objects, plants and flower studies, the ballet, nudes and portraits. In addition, he undertook fashion photography for the British edition of Vogue and advertising work for Marcus Brumwell’s Stuart Advertising Agency, whose roster of artists included Edward Bawden and John Piper. The social problems of the 1930s also came before his lens, in particular with a commission from the MP, Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson, to photograph the mining, fishing and shipbuilding communities of north-east England, although the results displayed little of the reformist ardour one might have expected but instead celebrated the nobility of the working man. The less savoury mien of the decade is also revealed in the photographs recording Nazi achievements that he took on a trip to Germany.
Uniting this eclectic body of subject matter was Smith’s excitement at discovering photography’s possibilities and above all the revelatory light the medium could shed on the visual richness of the world he inhabited. This epiphanic quality of photography was well expressed by Smith when he wrote in 1936,
Camera-eye has revealed a new visual sphere for my habitation; much that was before visually incomprehensible has become, in the presence of the camera, significant. A divining rod finding its own peculiar water, with myself a passive diviner. There is, of course, much still to be divined’3.
Always in Smith’s photography there is this sense of quest, an unrelenting need to explore and record the overlooked and underappreciated. Also common to his treatment of these subjects is a feel for pattern and texture as well as an eye for the incongruous.
His imagery during this period and indeed later was heavily influenced by the great French photographer, Eugène Atget (1857-1927), who from 1898 onwards painstakingly recorded the older Parisian streets and monuments that had survived the nineteenth-century ‘improvements’ of Baron Haussmann but were then freshly threatened by the construction of the Métro. Smith was a proud owner of a collection of Atget’s images, published posthumously in 1930 under the title Atget: Photographe de Paris, and his delight in visual intricacies and incongruities together with his ability to discern the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary, which remained constant refrains in his photography, owed much to his French forerunner. Nowhere is this better shown than in his largest corpus of pre-war work – that devoted to popular culture as manifested in the pub, music hall, night club and above all the circus and fairground. In contrast to those of Atget, however, which were taken on a large format camera with consequently long exposures that prevented the inclusion of people, Smith’s images, captured with his smaller, more spontaneous Contax, dynamically convey the drama of performance and the crowd’s excitement and apprehension. While Atget’s photographs appear a poignant requiem for a world that was vanishing as swiftly as his beloved Vieux Paris, Smith’s are a celebration of a vibrant, culture conveying not just ‘the fun of the fair’ and its Baroque trappings but also its skulduggery and terrors ¬– the intensity of Smith’s gaze transforms the fairground gallopers into frenzied participants in a surrealistic nightmare [C27058].
Smith’s interest in this subject matter was doubtless stimulated by his close friendship with Marx and it was heightened when, in 1943, he abandoned his wife and child to embark on what proved to be a remarkably creative and long-lasting relationship with Olive Cook (1912-2002), whom he eventually married in 1954. As well as being a gifted painter, Cook possessed a formidable intellect and boundless energy. In addition, her employment at the National Gallery had brought her into close contact with many artists such as Michael Rothenstein and John Aldridge and she was thus able greatly to widen Smith’s circle of friends and contacts.
In 1945 Cook relinquished her job at the National Gallery to pursue with Smith a freelance career in painting and writing. One of the first fruits of their collaboration was their transformation of The Saturday Book, an idiosyncratic ‘cabinet of curiosities’ that appeared annually each Christmas, running for 34 issues from 1941 until 1975. Smith’s first photographic contribution was to number 4 (1944), and thereafter his photographs enriched every issue, even posthumously, with Cook often writing the commentaries to the images and sometimes her own pieces. The couple also laid out their own articles and, as Leonard Russell, The Saturday Book’s first editor, generously acknowledged, they were ‘responsible for the odd, individual and imaginative visual quality of the book’4. These articles inventively covered a wide variety of subjects including bicycling, embroidery, and ‘Moving Pictures before the Cinematograph’ but popular art, seen in studies of matchbox-top design, ships’ figureheads, and most engagingly ‘Beside the Seaside’, and architecture, characteristically represented by studies of the offbeat such as Ferdinand Cheval’s fantastical self-built home, the Palais Idéal at Hauterives, proved recurrent themes. While Smith took few pictures specifically for the magazine, merely recycling those he had in stock, The Saturday Book did nevertheless provide a wider audience for his imagery as well as giving him an invaluable insight into book production and layout.
If Smith’s pre-war work had been interesting but essentially derivative, he developed his own distinctive photographic language during the 1950s thanks largely to a series of book commissions from the publishing firm of Thames & Hudson, which had been established in 1949 with a specific remit to engender a greater appreciation of Britain’s visual, as opposed to literary, heritage. Three of the books for which Smith provided the photographs were architectural. The first, English Parish Churches (1952), written by the economist Graham Hutton, already reveals the hallmarks of Smith’s mature style – a love of the intimate and picturesque; an empathetic response to, and conveyance of, the genius loci; a reverential expression of the textures of materials and the history to which they bear witness; and an unfailing ability, as Betjeman astutely observed, to ‘find a significant detail in a church – an oil lamp, a bell rope, or a harmonium which would conjure up a whole parish of people’5. Above all, the book – which broke new ground in seeking photographically to suggest how worshippers express their faith through architecture, artefacts and the diurnal trappings of church life – was an eloquent testimony to Smith’s declaration that for him photographing in a good village church was ‘unalloyed bliss’6. A similar enthusiasm underpinned English Abbeys and Priories (1960).
The preservationist aims that were muted in these two works on ecclesiastical subjects burst to the fore in English Cottages and Farmhouses (1954). The book reflected contemporary deep-seated concerns about the rapid changes that were dramatically reshaping the British landscape, with its passionate text by Cook and Smith’s visual paean to the humble delights of local building crafts and techniques that were sympathetic to locale and climate but increasingly threatened by insensitive redevelopment and the use of concrete (which Cook lambasted for being ‘the most inexpressive of all materials, the most destructive of regional character’7). The spiritual importance and abundant variety of that landscape together with the country’s built heritage were celebrated in two further Smith-illustrated Thames & Hudson publications, George Fraser’s Scotland (1955) and Geoffrey Grigson’s England (1957), which together breathed new life into the somewhat hidebound genre of topographical photography. More importantly, these books – sumptuously illustrated with photogravure reproductions that did full justice to the subtly nuanced tonality of Smith’s original imagery – not only established Smith as a photographer of the first rank but also made a telling contribution to the post-war rediscovery of Britain and what constituted Britishness, concerns that were at the heart of the Neo-Romantic movement. Increasingly in the wake of their possible obliteration through bombing or untrammelled redevelopment, the country’s landscape and buildings had come to define Britishness. This fragility encouraged artists such as John Piper, with whose work Smith’s bears a spiritual kinship, to explore their native land with a new urgency and intensity. Significantly, Smith himself valued his ‘negatives very much as a collection and as a record of places that are changing and disappearing’8. This is what gives them their strength – they are at once an inventory but also, with their carefully chosen subject-matter and controlled viewpoints, an inventive fabrication of an idyllic, unchanging world that is nevertheless threatened by dark forces beyond the frame, like W H Auden’s cigarette end smouldering menacingly on the garden border.
Smith’s work for Thames & Hudson obliged him to perfect a new photographic technique. The small format cameras he had employed before the war were unsuitable for architectural recording, which required larger cameras with a full range of movements, especially a rising front to counteract the problem of converging verticals. Smith thus purchased a second-hand, half-plate Ruby, a camera manufactured by Thornton Pickard of Leeds, together with a quarter-plate Sanderson and a smaller Ensign Autorange 820, which were more easily portable to subjects difficult to access. His compositional strategy also changed from one predominantly attuned to catching life on the fly to one that was much more carefully considered. In church interiors, for example, he revealed that he was ‘drawn to situations where the source of light lies diagonally in front of me and not behind’9 while, for exterior images, he preferred to photograph under a pallid sky rather than when the sun was at its most intense and consequently casting the deep shadows he was anxious to avoid. People now no longer appeared in his pictures as frequently as they had done in his pre-war work but as Betjeman remarked their traces were everywhere from the casually abandoned clutter of signage at the Railway Station, Talyllyn (1959) [C29560] to the open milk bottle at Furlongs, Firle (1953) [C26685A], the latter, though more comfortable, nevertheless reminiscent of Walker Evans’s 1930s documentation of sharecropper’s cabins in America’s Depression-devastated Deep South.
The lyricism and tonal delicacy of Smith’s imagery, together with his choice of primarily historical subject matter, placed him firmly in a photographic tradition that, though sustained by few practitioners, stretched back to the very roots of the medium. For its first two decades, the photography of buildings and landscape in Britain had been overwhelmingly in thrall to the doctrine of the Picturesque as articulated by theorists such as Uvedale Price. The influential commentator, Thomas Sutton, summed up the movement’s stance when advising photographers in 1854 to ignore ‘spick and span modern buildings’ and concentrate on ‘such grand scenes or artistic sites as a painter would select’ to achieve ‘the true poetry of photography’10. Smith’s photograph of the romantically ruinous Bolton Priory (1959) [C29557], if printed on albumen paper, could easily be mistaken for a product of the 1850s, and would doubtless have earned Sutton’s commendation with its typically picturesque musing on the transience of man’s endeavours. By the 1860s, however, firms photographing contemporary architecture had come to dominate and it was not until the turn of the century, in the face of increasing industrialisation and the rise of Pictorialism, that the more picturesque approach to architectural recording enjoyed a revival as can be seen in the work of photographers such as Henry Bennett, Charles Latham in Country Life, and, above all, Frederick Evans (1853-1943). With his numinous renditions of cathedral interiors which were reckoned to have raised architectural photography from ‘a matter of mere record into the domain of poetry and pictorial achievement’11, Evans was Smith’s spiritual forbear even though Smith’s imagery was less mystical and more focussed on the earthbound.
The success of his books for Thames & Hudson saw Smith’s work in greater demand than ever before during the last decade of his life with commissions from a wider range of publishers, among them Paul Elek and Weidenfeld and Nicolson, affording him the opportunity to explore buildings and landscapes further afield. The reproduction of some of his images in the prestigious postcard series published by Gordon Fraser also helped to broaden the popular audience for his work. While his technique remained unchanged, his subject matter revealed a newly discovered enchantment with gardens as witnessed especially by Edward Hyams’s The English Garden (1964) and English Cottage Gardens (1970), as well as a deepening photographic engagement with landscape, the imagery of which caused Smith the most pride for in it he reckoned he ‘had perhaps managed to convey something of infinity’12. This can perhaps be best seen in Ireland, published by Thames and Hudson in 1966 and written by the actor and theatre director Micheál Mac Liammóir, which prompted the Guardian’s critic, W L Webb to enthuse,
No prose coruscations can compete with the grave lyric beauty of Edwin Smith’s photographs. This is not just the best landscape photography I have ever seen: it is so subtly responsive to the particular mysteries of light, image and perspective that the limits of the medium seem dissolved, and one passes from page to page through a series of frozen dreams.13
Although Smith travelled throughout Europe and produced a book on Athens as part of a series for Elek, the lyrical potency of his photography was most manifest in his Italian work. While his 1971 Rome: From its Foundation to the Present was a disappointment, the 1965 The Wonders of Italy was a masterpiece, with Smith’s imagery lavishly and dramatically reproduced in Thames & Hudson’s opulent publication. By contrast, Pompeii and Herculaneum: the Glory and the Grief (1960) was a much more modest work with Smith’s photographs reproduced by Elek not in photogravure, but in the more prosaic half-tone which, as Smith later rightly complained, failed to do justice to the subtleties of his originals. Nevertheless it is a tribute to Smith’s photography that despite this drawback the book proved an outstanding success. Indeed Smith’s images of the towns destroyed by Vesuvius’s eruption show the photographer at the very peak of his powers, demonstrating in the words of one reviewer ‘a remarkable, almost sensuous feeling for surfaces and textures’14. They also represent a powerfully haunting elegy for a disappeared world. Two years later Smith collaborated with the same author, Marcel Brion, on another Elek publication, Venice: the Masque of Italy, which revealed Smith revelling in the city’s wealth of ‘romantically pictorial experiences’15. Here he could give full expression to his delight in incongruity, tactile intensity, and ‘knowing eye’16, which allowed him to invest even the most seemingly mundane detail with special significance.
On the home front, Smith provided the imagery for new, updated books on Scotland (1968) and England (1971), but his most significant work was that for A J Youngson’s seminal The Making of Classical Edinburgh (1966), which House & Garden lauded as ‘one of the finest, most comprehensive and exploratory records of a city ever made’17. In images that alternated between the crisply detailed and languidly atmospheric, the latter exemplified by an elevated view of Edinburgh seen through a smoky haze, Smith created an exemplary visual complement to Youngson’s text. Indeed it was photographs such as this that moved the critic Ken Powell to declare, ‘For many of us, the late Edwin Smith’s photographs ... were a gateway to the history of architecture’18. The importance of Smith’s photography goes far beyond this, however. For most of his life Smith denied his calling as a photographer, wishing to establish himself as an artist instead and becoming bitterly disappointed at his failure to do so. Yet he could not hide his love of the medium, writing a series of primers about it, including All the Photo-Tricks (1940), going to the utmost lengths to achieve the perfect image, and confessing,
The man who lives in his eyes is continually confronted with scenes and spectacles that compel his attention, or admiration, and demand an adequate reaction. To pass on without pause is impossible, and to continue after purely mental applause is unsatisfying, some real tribute must be paid. Photography, to many of its addicts, is a convenient and simple means of discharging these ever-recurring debts to the visual world.19
The humility of this statement encapsulates the essence of Smith’s photography. It is not a photography of instant eye-catching drama that may initially arouse but subsequently disappoint, but of subtle intimation, gently beckoning and rewarding through prolonged contemplation. As his friend, the writer, Norman Scarfe, put it, Smith ‘opened the eyes of a generation’20. He may be set to do so again.
- For a more detailed account of Smith’s photography see Robert Elwall, Evocations of Place: the Photography of Edwin Smith, London: Merrell, 2007
- Daily Telegraph & Morning Post, 23 August 1954
- Modern Photography: the Studio Annual of Camera Art, 1935-36, page 19
- The Saturday Book 32, London: Hutchinson, 1972, page 6
- John Betjeman, Church Poems, London: John Murray, 1981, page 7
- Edwin Smith, ‘On Photographing Cathedrals and Parish Churches’ in Olive Cook, English Parish Churches, London: Thames & Hudson, 1976, page 7
- Olive Cook, English Cottages and Farmhouses, London: Thames & Hudson, 1954, page 9
- Letter from Smith to Trevor Thomas of Gordon Fraser, 28 April 1962 (Olive Cook Papers, Newnham College Archives, Cambridge, Box 34 6/3/7)
- English Parish Churches, 1976, page 6
- Journal of the Photographic Society, vol 2, 21 October, page 53-54
- Quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Frederick H. Evans, Rochester, NY: George Eastman House, 1954, page 41
- Quoted in Olive Cook, ‘Edwin Smith – the Photographer’, in Record and Revelation: Photographs by Edwin Smith, York: Impressions Gallery of Photography, 1983, [page 9]
- The Guardian, 15 July 1966
- The Times Literary Supplement, 29 March 1974, page 321
- Letter from Smith to Cook, Venice, 20 September  (Edwin Smith Collection, RIBA British Architectural Library Photographs Collection
- ‘Recollections by His Friends: Eva Neurath’, in Aspects of the Art of Edwin Smith, 1974, [page 10]
- House & Garden, March 1972, page 71
- Twentieth Century Society Newsletter, Summer 2000, page 27
- Edwin Smith, All the Photo-Tricks, London & New York: Focal Press, 1940, page 271
- Quoted in Julia Hedgecoe, ‘In Memoriam: Life Stories. Olive Muriel Smith’, Newnham College Roll Letter, 2003, page 111