Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith

Writing the words to accompany the pictures in coffee table books can be a thankless task. Some idea of the poor hack’s lowly standing can be gleaned from the fact that the publisher’s ‘dummy’ (designed to sell international co-editions) has the sample text set in Ancient Greek.

The great photographer Edwin Smith (1912?71) the subject of this sumptuous study witheringly remarked that he had ‘never really been helped by meeting an author’.Yet, my proudest moment in Grub Street was writing the captions to some of Smith’s luminescent works of art in a volume on European royal palaces.

As Sir John Betjeman observed of Smith’s photographs: ‘Though in monochrome, they are as full of the suggestion of colour as are those marvellous etchings of Norfolk which Cotman made.’ Nowhere is Smith’s debt to Cotman and other landscape artists better shown than in his ravishing image of St Mary’s, Swinbrook, from across the Windrush. Indeed, Smith never cared for colour photography. ‘Even in black and white’, as Sir Cecil Beaton wrote, ‘he is able to suggest the richness of the dark Christmas pudding panelling below the brandy butter stucco ceilings of English country houses, the delicate spirals of the wood carving at Chatsworth, Belton, or Petworth’.

In a perceptive preface to Smith’s book Great Interiors (1967), Beaton pointed out: ‘Though appreciative of the cool, calm, and beautifully controlled photographs beloved of Country Life, he has also a mastery over dramatising the composition; for making the significant detail loom large in the foreground.’ Above all, as the architectural historian Sir John Summerson said, Smith ‘has such a good eye’.

‘The English Atget’, as he was nicknamed, was born in humble circumstances in Camden Town in north London, and insisted that he was ‘an architect by training, a painter by inclination and a photographer by necessity’. It has to be said that he does not come across as a particularly sympathetic figure. In describing the personalities of Smith and his second wife, Olive Cook (who bequeathed his photographic collection to the RIBA in 2002), Robert Elwall, photographs curator at the British Architectural Library, has to fall back on that dread phrase ‘neither suffered fools gladly’.

During the Second World War, Smith dodged conscription, abandoned his first wife and small baby son, and drew cats hardly ‘a good war’. Yet after the conflict, this essentially English artist certainly did his ‘bit’ for his country through pioneering conservation campaigns. As the esteemed author argues, Smith’s photographs ‘provide a unique insight into the cultural and social milieu of mid-20th-century Britain’ and highlight ‘the fragility of both our natural and our built heritage, together with the need for an architecture respectful of its environment’. And, of course, the pictures are beautiful.