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Martin Charles (1940-2012) and the Pictorialist Tradition

The importance of disseminating images, notably those from the RIBA Collections of drawings, archives, photographs and books and the opportunities afforded by digital technology led to the launch of the RIBApix website in 2005. As a fully searchable database of drawings, photographs and book illustrations which continues to grow by several thousand images a year, it has become a indispensable tool for students, architects and scholars.

This feature showcases one of the most important recent additions to the RIBA Robert Elwall Photographs Collection, the Martin Charles archive. Acquired shortly after his death in 2012 it contains over 25,000 images which are currently being digitised. The selection shown here represents some of the richness and range of this outstanding architectural photographer, in his documenting of both historical and contemporary architecture.

Martin Charles was essentially self-taught. His background was in film editing, working for the BBC in the early 1960s on their arts programme Monitor, before joining briefly Roy Boulting at Pinewood Studios as film editor. Rejecting the rigours and complexities of the film industry, he set up on his own as a freelance architectural photographer, where he found his vocation and he was published in journals such as Architectural Review and Architect’s Journal from the beginning.

His images resonate with the Pictorialist tradition in photography. Emerging at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was a reaction against the standardisation of photography and its mass commercialisation (particularly with the rise of roll film and the instamatic camera since the late 1880s). Architectural photographers sought to employ a number of techniques to demonstrate their artistry, creating painterly images, which evoked atmosphere, and a sense of place and time. It could also become a means of personal expression.

Charles’s photographs also show his editorial eye, as he draws the viewer into the frame of his picture. Philip Webb’s the Red House in Bexleyheath, London (RIBA105406) of 1860, was photographed in 1998 by Martin showing the house in late Autumn, with soft shadows and almost bare overhanging tree branches. All Saints Church, Brockhampton, Herefordshire (RIBA105407), 1902 by William Richard Lethaby taken in 1990 shows the church at the height of summer. Again the device of overhanging branches is used to frame the image, creating foreground shadows and sunlight, almost inviting us to walk across its lawn. At Broadleys, a house by Charles Voysey of 1900, near Lake Windermere (RIBA105408), we see it obliquely, framed by planting with the curved window bays receding into the distance. In contrast, Heathcote, Ilkley, West Yorkshire (RIBA105409), a large country house by Edwin Lutyens of 1906 is photographed straight-on, symmetrically framed between the large gate piers of the garden terrace.

Drawing the viewer into the frame, inviting us to participate in the subject, all part of the Pictorialist tradition – can be seen in photographers who influenced Charles, notably Alfred Edward Henson (1884-1972), who worked for Country Life magazine and the incomparable Edwin Smith (1912-1971) who documented a post-war world of unchanging landscapes, rural ways of life, churches, cottages, streets with and without people and grand decaying buildings. Eric de Maré, who is known for his pioneering studies of Britain’s industrial heritage, seen here in his famous image of St Edward’s Church at Brotherton, North Yorkshire dwarfed by the Ferrybridge B Power Station behind (RIBA2825-22), was also much admired by Charles.

Alfred Henson’s photograph of 1925 of Oliver Hill’s house, Cock Rock, Croyde in Devon (RIBA15619) is as timeless as Charles’s image taken in 2003 of Edwin Lutyens, The Ferry Inn, Rosneath (of 1897) in Scotland (RIBA81790). Both use strong lines and asymmetry to pull us into the picture.

In Edwin Smith, whom Martin Charles acknowledged as one of his influences, the sense of place is palpable, seen in his view of the Necropolis, Pompeii (RIBA2997-31) at sunset, with its ghostly statue. Charles’s photograph of the tomb of Philip James De Loutherbourg, St Nicholas Church, Chiswick, London, suggests a neglected suburban churchyard (RIBA103273).

This sense of atmosphere and place is key to Charles’s work. Robert Elwall in his acclaimed book on architectural photography, Building with Light, describes Martin Charles’s approach as one which, emphasizes place and the human dimension rather than architecture per se, ‘You don’t actually have to have people in the shot, but you do need to have the signs, the evidence of people’s work.’

He creates a feeling of presence, seen in this image of artists’ houses and studios by the River Thames at Hammersmith, with the empty garden seat (apart from the sleeping cat) and a door which opens onto the paved terrace (RIBA103214).

Many photographs from the Pictorialist tradition are also suffused with atmosphere as seen in Eric De Mare’s brooding image of Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (RIBA49667). Similarly, Charles’s Ducrow Mausoleum, at Kensal Green Cemetery, London (RIBA80280) conveys loss and mourning.

Both Smith and Charles were able to show the beauty in the everyday and ordinary life. Charles also used it in his images of contemporary architecture. In the 1970s and 1980s, he photographed many housing schemes for Camden Council, London, one of the most famous, being the Alexandra Road Estate (RIBA53233), by Neave Brown (completed 1979). Here the solitary black-suited figure in the foreground sums up this new urban environment of closely packed terraces and paved surfaces. A few years later, also in Camden we see the advent of post-Modernism in this modest block of flats on 24 Maygrove Road, Camden (RIBA78642), where again the solitary figure with his carrier bags captures our imagination. With Smith it is photograph of a Belfast street taken in the 1960s (RIBA11766) and the two women with their shopping bags.

Although these pictorial images are clearly associated with the use of black and white photography, Charles was one of the first architectural photographers to embrace fully the potential of colour, which could be just as atmospheric. This is particularly demonstrated in his photographs for the Masters of Building series created for the Architects’ Journal from the mid-1980s, seen here in the hallway of Victor Horta’s, Hotel Tassel, Brussels, after its restoration (RIBA105088) with its soft lighting. In contrast Richard Lethaby’s All Saints Church, Brockhampton (RIBA102873), with its cloudy skies and horse quietly cropping in the foreground, can be easily imagined in black and white.

Charles himself had a fondness for Arts and Craft architecture and he collaborated with authors such as Andrew Saint with his monograph on Richard Norman Shaw, Hilary Grainger on Sir Ernest George, Sheila Kirk on Philip Webb and Wendy Hitchmough’s book on Arts and Craft architecture. All of these photographs (many of them colour) showing the richness and texture of the buildings are now part of our collection at the RIBA.

To view more of Martin Charles work click here.