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Edwin Smith

Unwrapping the Enigma

Portrait of Edwin Smith (self-portrait?) ©RIBADespite his claim that he was a photographer only ‘by necessity’, Edwin Smith was one of the most important British photographers of the 20th century. His simple yet distinctive style showed both his unerring visual perception of form and his love of architecture from the vernacular to the grand. The importance of his work derives both from its quality and its breadth. Yet, despite the limited recognition he received during his lifetime and the more prominent promotion of his work by his widow, Olive Cook, following his death, he remains something of an enigma.

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Record and Revelation

This descriptive text was written by Olive Cook after Edwin's death, to accompany a major exhibition of his photographs at Impressions Gallery, York, in 1983. It neatly summarises Edwin's life and illustrates Olive's tireless promotion of her late husband's work, which she maintained for thirty years after his death.

The text appeared in the catalogue for the exhibiton, illustrated below.

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Edwin Smith – Ways of Working

On other pages, Unwrapping the Enigma, I describe how in 1989 we set out to explore the work of Edwin Smith and in doing so talked to his widow, Olive Cook, and some friends, a few of whom worked with him.  That article uses the interviews to try to gain some insights into the character of Edwin.  This article uses the same sources and research in the Olive Cook Papers (Newnham College) to explore something of his way of working as a photographer.

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Capturing Paradise –Edwin Smith's Painting & Drawing

Edwin Smith painting in Saffron Walden, 1960Edwin Smith always said of himself, ‘I am an architect by training, a painter by profession and a photographer of necessity.' However, it is as a photographer that he is known professionally and artistically, while his painting and drawing is almost entirely neglected.  Working from the interviews conducted in 1989 and research in the Olive Cook Papers (Newnham College), this page hopes to shed a little light on Edwin the painter and drawer to complement our understanding of him as a photographer.

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Edwin Smith & Social Documentary Photography

Gateshead 1936; Photograph by Edwin Smith ©RIBAEdwin Smith is one of the great British architectural photographers of the 20th century.  Between the publication of English Parish Churches in 1952 and Rome: from its Foundation to the Present in 1971 he established a deceptively simple yet distinctive style of photography that celebrated the architecture of Britain and mainland Europe.  To those familiar with this work the inclusion of documentary photographs dating from the 1930s in the main two monographs on Edwin (Edwin Smith – Photographs 1935-1971 (ESP) (1984) and Evocations of Place – The Photography of Edwin Smith (EoP) (2007) and the portfolio in Creative Camera International Year Book 1978 (CC) (1977) may come as a surprise.  Study of the Edwin Smith material held at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) shows that the published pictures are but fraction of a larger body of work made in the 1930s.

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The Woodcuts of Edwin Smith

The following article by Nigel Weaver appeared in the Winter 2004 edition of Matrix (No. 24) and is reproduced by permission of the Editor. It was also published in the Fry Art Gallery July 2005 Newsletter. Matrix is a review for printers and bibliophiles, published in an edition of 800 periodically by the Whittington Press.
The examples of cuts by Edwin Smith shown above are from The Fry Art Gallery collection and the editor's personal collection.

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