Edwin Smith, 1950s
© Edwin Smith / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
As strikingly demonstrated by his archive of 60,000 negatives and 20,000 prints now held in the Robert Elwall Photographs Collection, Edwin Smith was one of Britain’s finest architectural and topographical photographers. Generously bequeathed by his widow Olive Cook to the British Architectural Library at the RIBA 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 reappraisal, and is but one indication of a burgeoning appreciation of his imagery.
Smith was born into humble circumstances in Camden Town, London, in 1912 and left school at the age of twelve to train as a builder. He studied architecture at the Architectural Association and practiced briefly before turning to photography full time in the 1930s. His work during this period varied from social documentary through plant and flower studies to advertising shots for Vogue, a commission he obtained on recommendation from the artist Paul Nash. In the 1950s he was commissioned by Thames & Hudson for a series of ground-breaking books, among them English Parish Churches (1952) and English Cottages & Farmhouses (1954). These were to herald a succession of further publications filled entirely with his evocative photographs, often alongside eloquent texts by his wife, the art and architectural historian Olive Cook. Covering subjects such as landscape, gardens, topography and architecture, these reached a popular audience and saw Smith demonstrate above all his ability to convey a sense of place.
He will be the subject of a new exhibition Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith, open at the RIBA from 10 September to 6 December 2014.