Exhibition review: Ordinary Beauty – The Photography of Edwin Smith

Michael Murray-Fennell is bowled over by the 'magic reality' of Edwin Smith's photographs.

In the far corner of this exhibition of Edwin Smith’s photographs, the curators have cleverly placed a reproduction of The Vale of Dedham by John Constable from 1828 beside Smith’s photograph of St Mary’s Church in Swinbrook, Oxfordshire. Just as Constable leads the eye over the Suffolk countryside and along the winding River Stour towards Dedham church tower in the background, Smith has also composed a visual journey over the River Windrush through a frame of trees and across a field to St Mary’s in the distance. And, surely, Constable would have pined to paint the clouds Smith captured through his lens that day in 1955.

Smith admired Constable and Turner and he firmly belongs to the romantic photographic tradition; he described himself as ‘a painter by inclination and a photographer by necessity’. His shot of St Mary’s, along with the three adjoining photographs of Hadrian’s Wall, Edderton Sands in the Highlands and the view from Raglan Castle in Wales, are the highpoints of this excellent exhibition, uplifting images that move beyond his other undoubtedly masterful photographs of buildings and landscape and have as he put it ‘perhaps managed to convey something of infinity’.

‘Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith’ at the Royal Institute of British Archi-tects is the first major retrospective of his work. It opens with his early days photographing north London between the World Wars and his fascination with the performers and folk art of the circuses and fairgrounds. Smith studied at the Architect-ural Association, made a name for himself through a series of best-practice photography guides and, in the 1950s, was commissioned by Thames & Hudson to illustrate its series on English parish churches, cottages and farmhouses, abbeys and priories. ‘Ordinary Beauty’ features these photographs as well as his many European commissions, from the villas and palazzi of Italy to the shrines and streets of Ireland.

He was the foremost architectural photographer of his day, eliciting praise from John Betjeman (‘a genius of photography’) and Cecil Beaton (‘even in black and white 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’).

A number of his photographs show buildings and streets that fell to the postwar wrecking balls, including Hafod House in Wales, the Royal Exchange in the City of London and some of the capital’s terraces. Smith was no fan of the modern architecture that replaced themhe decried Modernism for its lack of ‘warm humanity’ and ‘obvious beauty’ but it doesn’t appear he was in the vanguard of the conservation movement.

Rather, he quietly criss-crossed Britain with his field camera, photographing traditional buildings and their harmonious relationship with the surrounding landscape. As the fruits of his labour were published, they helped to open the public’s eyes to the beauty surrounding them and the fact that it was at risk. Since his death in 1971, Smith’s timeless style has fallen out of fashion, accused as Constable sometimes is of a chocolate-box aesthetic and outflanked by a photography of seemingly spontaneous snaps of buildings and people using them.

He was well aware that his photography focused on the best of the past and ignored the worst of the present. After spending the day photographing Lindfield in West Sussex, he described the village in a letter as being ‘like a romantic dream’. But he defended his art: ‘Though it may well seem a caricature to-morrow it had a very magic reality this evening.’ Some of what Smith photographed has today vanished. Much of it happily remains.

It is still possible, when the light, the view and the atmosphere are right, for the buildings of Britain to offer a transcendental experience. And when it isn’t, that emotion will survive in the works of Edwin Smith.

‘Ordinary Beauty: The Photo-graphy of Edwin Smith’ is at the Royal Institute of British Architects, London W1, until December 6 (020–7580 5533; www.architecture.com)

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