Guest Article - Edwin Smith: from English parish to Pompeii

By Robert Elwall
The ruin of a Roman temple

(Above) Temple of Castor and Pollux, Agrigento, Sicily. Photo by Edwin Smith courtesy of the RIBA Library Photographs Collection

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, noted especially for his sensitive response to place.

Hailed as "a genius at photography" by John Betjeman, he is perhaps best known today for the books he illustrated for Thames and Hudson during the 1950s which not only served to increase awareness of the country's threatened built heritage but also helped to redefine what constituted Britishness.

These included a triptych of books exploring building types - English Parish Churches (1952), English Cottages and Farmhouses (1954) and English Abbeys and Priories (1960) – as well as Scotland (1955) and England (1957).

However like many of his compatriots before and after, Smith also had a love affair with Italy, though not with the places traditionally associated with the Grand Tour. He had little time for the Renaissance magnificence of Florence, still less for the eternal glories of Rome.

Rather he was beguiled by the romantic picturesqueness of Sicily, which he first visited in 1950 with his collaborator and later wife, the art historian Olive Cook. She commended the emotional appeal of its "mouldering past" and "wildest natural beauty" to which was added "the awful fascination of possible convulsion".

They returned to the island again in 1954 and Smith composed many evocative images of its rugged landscape as well as its architecture and people. Ideas for a book on Sicily remained sadly unfulfilled, but other books did come to fruition, including two published by Elek, Venice: The Masque of Italy (1962) and Rome: From its Foundation to the Present (1970).

These were overshadowed by Thames and Hudson's sumptuous The Wonders of Italy (1965), the rich photogravure illustrations of which did full justice to the subtlety and delicate tonal range of Smith’s imagery.

A statue of a woman standing amongst ruins

The Necropolis, Pompeii. Photo by Edwin Smith courtesy of the RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Smith’s ability to conjure up the genius loci was, however, perhaps best shown in his photographs for Marcel Brion's Pompeii and Herculaneum: The Glory and the Grief published by Elek in 1960 which unsurprisingly proved one of his most successful publications.

As elsewhere, Smith worked early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the crowds and the thrill he experienced in being able to commune alone with the sites' architecture is not only evident in his photographs but also echoes through his correspondence with Cook.

Thus Smith disclosed to Cook that he "found the necropolis about 5 pm. It has a small collection of exciting tombs some with memorial figures. The sun had almost set before I was finished and as I walked back through the deserted streets I began to be moved by the place for the first time."

The resulting photograph of the necropolis at sunset is a particularly moving elegy for a lost world that also possesses what one reviewer termed "a remarkable, almost sensuous feeling for surfaces and textures". This is Smith’s photography at its very best, gently inviting us to pause and reflect.

For more information on the RIBA Library Photographs Collection follow the venue details below or browse the RIBA Library Photographs Collection online at www.ribapix.com.

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