Guest article: The work of John Maltby in the RIBA Library Photographs Collection

By Robert Elwall, assistant director at the RIBA Library Photographs Collection | 22 January 2010
a black and white photo of the outisde of an Odeon cinema

Odeon cinema, Leicester Square, London (1937), Architects: Andrew Mather and Harry William Weedon, John Maltby / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Culture24 has teamed up with the RIBA Library Photographs Collection to bring you a series of features highlighting some of its hidden treasures. Here Robert Elwall, assistant director at the Collection, discusses the work of John Maltby.

The career of the Manchester-born John Maltby (1910-1980) spanned five decades and produced some of the most enduringly evocative images of British architecture and design during the twentieth century.

The initial impetus to his photographic business came in 1935 when he obtained a commission from the Odeon cinema chain to take four views of every new cinema it built for a fixed fee of £3.

At a time when the economy was severely depressed, this proved a very lucrative contact as the Odeon chain expanded rapidly with 36 new cinemas opening in 1937 alone.

By the end of the decade Maltby’s stock boasted over 1100 views of 250 Odeon cinemas including that of its flagship cinema in Leicester Square. Designed in 1937 by Andrew Mather and Harry Weedon, this cinema reversed the usual Odeon design formula, substituting a striking all black granite façade for the usual cream faience tiling.

To these were added images of some of the best examples of 1930’s architecture such as an iconic night shot of Battersea Power Station, London (1935), which exemplifies the period’s belief in redemption through technology.

There are also images of Highpoint I, Highgate, London, which Maltby photographed in 1935 at the beginning of an enduring relationship with its architect, Berthold Lubetkin.

These photographs established Maltby’s reputation as one of the country’s top architectural photographers but it was after the Second World War when his career really blossomed.

a black and white photo of a Habitat furniture store

Habitat shop, Fulham Road, London (1964), Designers: Sir Terence Conran and Oliver Gregory © John Maltby / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Thus he documented the pioneering school-building programme carried out by Hertfordshire County Architects’ Department and the Festival of Britain (1951) before his firm entered its most productive period in the 1950s and 1960 when, at its peak, it employed four photographers, two printers and several clerical staff.

During this period its work strongly reflected the architectural themes of the period – the initial dominance of local authority architecture followed by the gradual resurgence of private practice; the rapid spread of the Festival style from New Towns to coffee bars and its replacement by the harder-edged New Brutalism; the search for technological solutions to speed up the reconstruction of the urban fabric; the growing confluence of design and architecture and the attempt better to integrate architecture and art; and finally the university building boom of the 1960s.

Especially apparent is the greater coverage of interiors reflected in the firm’s work for magazines such as Modern Woman and Ideal Home and the large amount of photography undertaken for Terence Conran.

The latter included the designer’s newly created Habitat outlet, the first shop of which in the Fulham Road Maltby photographed on the eve of its opening on May 11, 1964.

The simplicity of the interior and the straightforward manner in which the goods were displayed, both clearly apparent in Maltby’s image, were key ingredients in the retailer’s phenomenal success.

Although Maltby continued photographing until his death in 1980 and the firm went on after that, by the end of the 1960s it was no longer documenting cutting-edge architecture and design as these commissions increasingly went to a new generation of younger photographers - among them Richard Einzig and John Donat.

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