The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Edwin Smith: Ordinary Beauty

RIBA Architecture Gallery

Reviewed by Alan Powers

The new RIBA Gallery at 66 Portland Place opened last year with The Brits who Built the Modern World. This showed the work of the senior generation of architectural stars, some of whose names are recognised by the general public. This was an understandable theme with which to launch a new space, but at the same time distinctly déjà-vu, as if one were back in 1986.

Choosing Edwin Smith as the second show was a clever way of signalling a more pluralistic approach, though still a popular one. Smith studied at the Architectural Association in the late 1920s, but realised that he was an artist at heart – albeit one who, for the purposes of making a living, made photography his principal medium. Although his career was cut short when he died at only 59, he produced a large body of work, all of which is now in the care of the RIBA’s Robert Elwall Photographic Collection. It was Robert himself (who sadly died in 2012 while still developing the collection he had single-handedly brought into being) who was responsible for intercepting the archive which Smith’s widow, the writer Olive Cook, had previously considered giving to the V&A.

This exhibition was carefully thought out to cover the whole range of Smith’s subject matter. He was best known for his images of buildings and gardens, many made for books published by Thames and Hudson, for which Olive wrote the texts. These are among the best of their kind, from the days when there were few cars on the roads and churches seem to have been devoid of notice boards and other clutter. Although he worked in colour at times, black and white suited his sense of space and light.

Yet the range of subjects is wider: early on, Smith was interested in circuses, funfairs and street life. He had an eye for the peculiar and the quirky, and especially for scenes of slow decay in houses and gardens that have little to do with the formal quality of architecture and its history, yet were attuned to the neo-romantic spirit of the war and the years that followed. The couple were collectors of everyday objects and included many of these in articles for the annual Saturday Book through the 1940s and 50s. All this has once more become familiar and fashionable territory in recent years, and, then as now, is an affirmation of a spontaneity of soul threatened by modernity in all its forms. It could hardly be more different from The Brits, even if there is perhaps some common territory to be found in the roof structure of a Victorian train shed.

Robert Elwall’s 2007 book, Evocations of Place, the photography of Edwin Smith gives a sensitive account of the work and its context, and the exhibition took this further, making it a valuable way of getting visitors to think about the scope of architectural photography and its strategies of composition that we tend to take for granted. The RIBA splashed out on posters on the Tube, and one hopes that they have created an audience for the gallery: one that will go on supporting the more unusual themes and subjects that were integral to the programming of its precursor, the RIBA Heinz Gallery in Portman Square, which held its last show in 1999.