Edwin Smith (1912-1971) ‘Opened the eyes of a generation’
When Edwin Smith died in 1971 he was famed as a recorder of the nation’s traditional landscape and architecture.
Born in 1912 in Camden, London, Smith showed an artistic aptitude throughout his schooling, and in 1928 he won a scholarship to study architecture at the Northern Polytechnic, Holloway. Moving, two years later, to study at the prestigious Architectural Association, Smith’s clear intention was to design rather than document the nation’s buildings. However, his father’s abandonment of his family led to Smith’s premature departure from the course. This, compounded by his dissatisfaction with modernism, resulted in his increasing reliance on photography to make a living.
Smith had been fascinated by photography since buying his first Kodak Box Brownie at the age of fifteen, but must have initially found this development disappointing. Nevertheless, through the artistic circles in which he mixed, he began to win regular commissions from British Vogue and also the Marcus Brumwell Stuart Advertising Agency.
While much of his early commercial work was affected by the requirements of his employers, once free of the tyranny of the art director there were hints of the brilliance to come.
The 1930s saw Smith voraciously experimenting with different styles, cameras and techniques. Inspired by the great French photographer of quotidian life, Eugène Atget, and by other realist photographers, Smith produced a number of fascinating studies in his twenties. Fairgrounds, shop windows, nick-knacks and passers-by featured heavily, the beginning of a life-long obsession with recording popular culture.
John Betjeman referred to him as ‘a genius at photography’, so it is ironic that for most of his career he considered the art form at best a necessary commercial adjunct to his principal passion – painting. Some of this can be attributed to the low regard with which photography was held by painters, but mostly it can be put down to his chronic self-effacement. Whatever the reason, it did not affect his application to the task. A photographer with a unique ability to sense the prevailing mood of a place, it was no accident that Smith earned the soubriquet ‘the English Atget’.
Notable among Smith’s early publications are a series of six books of photographic techniques for the Focal Press, including Cruising with a Camera: Phototips for Sea and Shore (1939), Better Snapshots with Any Camera (1939) and the most popular, Phototips (1940). This swift metamorphosis from frustrated painter to photographic authority signified Smith’s full embrace of the medium, and gave him a first taste of commercial publishing success.
In the 1950s, Smith’s publishing career properly gained momentum. Working for the newly founded publishing firm Thames & Hudson, he produced three books that focused his photographic attentions on British building types. The first was entitled English Parish Churches and was published in 1952. This was followed by English Cottages and Farmhouses (1954) and then English Abbeys and Priories (1960). All three of these were accompanied with texts by his wife, Olive Cook. Utilising only natural light, sometimes with exposures of up to half an hour, Smith conjured up timeless images that are rich in both atmosphere and place. All three books were lavishly produced, and used the latest in photogravure printing technology to reproduce Smith’s delicate and subtle photographs.
Smith’s body of work during the 1950s can be seen as an unofficial visual study of the British Isles. He published three other books for Thames & Hudson, including England (1957), and contributed his more quirky photographs to The Saturday Book, an annual artistic and literary miscellany, of which both Smith and his wife were founding members.
Smith was unusual in that most of his photography was commissioned for inclusion in books, rather than for ephemeral reproduction in advertisements or magazines. The cumulative effect of this was to make him a household name who, in the words of his friend, the author Norman Scarfe, ‘opened the eyes of a generation’.
Smith was most productive in the 1960s, during which the success of his earlier books paid dividends and he was courted by publishers for a total of forty-two books. He consolidated his 1950s photography of England with several other publications that covered a wide selection of British architecture and landscape. Smith was increasingly commissioned to travel abroad, particularly to Italy, to take photographs for books such as Venice: The Masque of Italy (1963) and The Wonders of Italy (1965).
Some of Smith’s popularity with publishers can be paradoxically attributed to his flat refusal to keep up with photographic trends. His traditional, measured, large-format approach was out of keeping with the changing fashion for reportage style photography that dominated the 1960s visual aesthetic. He distanced himself from the post-war vogue for highly stylised architectural photographs, mostly of modernist buildings, isolated from their surroundings and taken in bright sunlight from ‘unusual’ viewpoints. Also, Smith preferred to concentrate on the traditional relationship of a building to its surrounding landscape. Leaving out the modern, social impact of buildings, he kept most of his photographs free of both people and the impact of modern development. It was left to his wife’s text to point out such facts as ‘yet five miles distant heavy traffic thunders continuously through the villages of Harston and Melbourn, giving the lie to the peaceful aspect of the row of cottages shown’ (Olive Cook, English Cottages and Farmhouses, London: Thames & Hudson, 1954, page 7).
Smith’s sensitivity to his native surroundings enabled him to photograph the changing landscape and architecture with brilliance, capturing in print buildings and traditions that have since been bulldozed by progress. As a historical document Smith’s archive is fascinating and unique, and in Britain today, with overdevelopment and erosion of rural life a major political issue, Edwin Smith’s photography has a renewed resonance. As Robert Elwall writes in his book Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith (2007):
The recurrent themes of Smith’s work – a concern for the fragility of the environment; an acute appreciation of the need to combat cultural standardisation by safe guarding regional diversity; and a conviction that architecture should be rooted in time and place – are as pressing today as when Smith first framed them in his elegant compositions
Smith enjoyed close links with other artists as well, in particular two colonies whose establishment in the rural retreats of ‘Deep England’ symbolised not only their member’s concern to explore the English landscape but also their sensitivity to regional differences. Eric Ravilious’s love of the chalk downs of Sussex drew him to Furlongs, an isolated farmstead near Firle, which the wallpaper designer Peggy Angus had discovered and rented as a holiday home. Despite the rudimentary nature of its accommodation, Furlongs became notable for its artistic gatherings, presided over by Angus, who until 1948 was married to Jim Richards, the editor of the Architectural Review. Cook and Smith were frequent visitors from 1947 onwards, with Smith taking photographs of the rather dilapidated cottages and the various revels in which the group indulged ... A more coherent artistic community grew up around Edward Bawden’s home at Great Bardfield, which he had discovered together with Ravilious. There Cook and Smith came into contact with a notable group of artists, illustrators and designers, among them, in addition to thoses already mentioned, Kenneth Rowntree and Walter Hoyle, who took as their main subject the landscape that they found on their doorstep. (Robert Elwall, Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith, London: Merrell Publishers, 2007, page 62)