Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith

Exhibition: 10 September 2014 – 6 December 2014  

Architecture Gallery, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London, W1


In September 2014, RIBA’s new Architecture Gallery will present the first major retrospective of Edwin Smith (1912 – 1971), one of Britain’s foremost 20th century photographers. Hailed by Sir John Betjeman as a ‘genius at photography’ and by Cecil Beaton as ‘an understanding and loving connoisseur of his subject’, Edwin Smith captured the essence of the places, landscapes and buildings he photographed.

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith will display over 100 extraordinary black and white photographs from a collection of over 60,000 negatives and 20,000 prints given by Olive Cook, Smith’s widow and collaborator, to the RIBA Library. From urban scenes documenting British social history to evocative landscape images and atmospheric interiors, the images displayed reveal the genius and breadth of his work. Alongside his images of Britain the exhibition will show photographs taken on his travels to Europe as well as his published books and photographic equipment. Specially filmed contributions ranging from Alan Bennett to broadcaster Gillian Darley offer personal perspectives of Smith’s work.

Edwin Smith was highly sought-after by publishers and in the 1950s he was commissioned by Thames & Hudson for a series of books, among them English Parish Churches (1952), English Cottages & Farmhouses (1954), Scotland (1955), England (1957), and The Living City: A New View of the City of London (1957). His work featured in Vogue, Shell Guides and numerous other publications illustrating features and books on subjects varying from Great Houses of Europe to The Wonders of Italy.

The late Robert Elwall, author of Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith and previous curator of the RIBA Photographs Collection:

“The recurring themes of Edwin Smith’s work – a concern for the fragility of the environment, both natural and man-made; an acute appreciation of the need to combat cultural homogenization by safeguarding regional diversity; and, above all, a conviction that architecture should be rooted in time and place – are as pressing today as when Smith first framed them in his elegantly precise compositions.”

Valeria Carullo, RIBA, co-curator of the exhibition:

“Edwin Smith’s images provoke an immediate emotional response and at the same time offer the opportunity for observation and reflection. This exhibition offers a timely reappraisal of his exceptional work and emphasises the prominent place he deserves in the history of British photography”

As post-war social and urban change began to alter the look and character of British towns and cities a movement to save Britain’s heritage gained momentum. The 1950s saw the birth of the Victorian Society and in 1951 the first volume of Pevsner’s Buildings of England was published. Smith shared similar sensibilities and his work contributed to the appreciation of traditional British architecture, local craftsmanship and regional building materials.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a series of talks, films and events.


Notes to editors:

For press images see the document attached and contact and contact Beatrice Cooke in the RIBA press office for high res images or for further information. Tel: 020 7307 3813, email beatrice.cooke@riba.org or go to www.architecture.com/EdwinSmith   Twitter: #EdwinSmith  @RIBA

A press view for the exhibition will be held at RIBA on the morning of Monday 8 September from 09.00 – 11.00. Contact beatrice.cooke@riba.org for further details.

Admission to the exhibitions at RIBA is FREE. Venue: Architecture Gallery, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London, W1B 1AD, London. Nearest tube: Great Portland Street, Oxford Circus or Regent’s Park

For public enquiries – Tel: 020 7307 3699 www.architecture.com/EdwinSmith  The RIBA is open Monday to Saturday 10am – 5.45pm and until 22.00 every Tuesday. It is closed on Sundays.

The Photography of Edwin Smith is curated by Valeria Carullo and Justine Sambrook.

Edwin Smith

As strikingly demonstrated by his archive of 60,000 negatives and 20,000 prints now held in the RIBA Library Photographs Collection, Edwin Smith (1912-1971) was one of Britain’s finest architectural and topographical photographers. Generously bequeathed by his widow Olive 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 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.

The Edwin Smith archive represents one of the most significant holdings of the Robert Elwall Photographs Collection, alongside the 500,000 images of the Architectural Press Archive. It includes Smith’s working prints, glass and film negatives, daybooks, correspondence and other ephemera including his camera and offers a unique insight into the practice of working photographer.

The British Architectural Library was founded in 1834 as the library of the Royal Institute of British Architects. It is the largest and most comprehensive resource in Britain for research and information on all aspects of architecture and probably the finest collection of its kind in the world.

The RIBA Photographs Collection contains over 1.5 million images of architecture world-wide in a variety of formats. The earliest photographs in the collection date from the 1840s and it includes the work of internationally renowned photographers as well as the archives of leading architectural photographers among them John Maltby, Colin Westwood, John McCann, Alastair Hunter, Henk Snoek, Crispin Boyle and John Donat. Another key component of the collection is the archive of the Architectural Press, publishers of the Architects’ Journal and Architectural Review. For more information go to www.ribapix.com

The (RIBA) champions better buildings, communities and the environment through architecture and our members. www.architecture.com  @RIBA  #Edwin Smith Royal Institute of British Architects


Posted on Friday 30th May 2014