Search this site

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.


In 1989 we put together a proposal for an exhibition and publication to bring together the lifetime work of Edwin Smith across all media: photographs, paintings and drawings, and other art works. Ultimately we were unable to proceed with this, but did gain some insights into the man through talking to Olive and some close friends, a few of whom had worked with him. These notes draw on those discussions, and subsequent research in the Olive Cook Papers (Newnham College, Cambridge), and aim to go a little way towards unwrapping the enigma, adding further insight to already published material.

According to Olive, Edwin’s maternal grandfather was a blacksmith of Scottish-Irish descent who fell for a woman he could not afford to marry; so he immigrated to Canada to earn his fortune as a lumberjack, telling her to wait two years for him. On his return he found her married and with a child; he threw out her husband and moved in. The couple never married, though they had a number of children, one of whom was Edwin’s mother, Lily Beatrice. Olive said that Edwin’s grandfather was very strict and, despite being poor, refused to let the girls go out to work; he believed that their duty was to be at home with their mother.

Perhaps to escape this tyranny, Edwin’s mother eventually ran away to London and took work as a barmaid near Victoria. After moving into employment as a housekeeper, she met Edwin Stanley Smith. They married and Edwin, the only child, was born in 1912. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Edwin’s father, who according to Olive realised the marriage was a mistake, joined up and went to France. He wrote to his wife saying that he wanted a separation; however, Edwin’s mother met him at the station on his return and took him back to the family home.

Olive claimed that Edwin Stanley then became active in the Labour Party, had an affair, got into trouble embezzling Party funds and was sent to prison. He wrote from prison to Edwin’s mother saying again that their marriage was over.  When he was released she and the young Edwin met him at the prison gate: he again declared that he didn’t want to live with his wife. They were never reconciled and, so far as we know, Edwin never saw his father again. Olive maintained that Edwin’s experience as a child of being dragged across London to the prison in the darkness of early morning forever put him off getting up early!

In later life Olive saw a great deal of Edwin’s mother and concluded that she was over-protective, even fixated and obsessive about him. Edwin’s relationship with his mother was apparently always strained and his early years spent living, ‘in the top back room in Camden Town’, as he put it, were a major influence on the rest of his life. He felt obliged to see his mother almost daily when he and Olive lived in London and he helped to take care of her. Although she eventually followed them to Saffron Walden in Essex when Edwin and Olive moved there, Olive said he tried to break free of her and would visit her only occasionally. Perhaps ironically, she outlived him.

Rosemary Smith née Ansell, 1939; Photograph by Edwin SmithIn his early twenties Edwin met Rosemary Ansell, daughter of Henry Ansell, a confectioner, and despite objections from his mother, they married in 1935. Olive suggested that the marriage may not have been consummated for several years, with the additional burden of Edwin’s mother getting in the way of any attempt to establish a normal married life.

Olive’s version of events maintained that, as a consequence of the difficulties in his marriage, Edwin had other women friends and possibly lovers. However, he refused to leave Rosemary as he didn’t want to repeat what had happened to his mother and father. Eventually a son, Martin, was born in 1941 but the relationship appears to have broken down irretrievably soon after and the marriage ended in divorce two years later. We don’t know for sure if Edwin and Martin remained in regular contact, although there is some evidence to suggest that they did.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Edwin was eligible to be conscripted, although with his surname being alphabetically some way down the list he was not called up immediately. Olive claimed he objected on principle - he didn’t agree with ‘legalised murder’ as he described it. He attended a tribunal in London to explain why he had not answered the call-up. At the end of the hearing Edwin walked out and appears to have spent the rest of the war years on the run. On at least one occasion, Olive reported, Edwin avoided being taken by the military police by passing himself off as Stuart Smith, another conscientious objector with whom he was good friends and shared a house. Later the house where he stayed was under surveillance by the police and Edwin went to live on Hampstead Heath where Olive would take him food. These stories are not easy to reconcile with the usual biography that says he worked as a camouflage artist during the War. Although he may indeed have worked in a camouflage factory at some point, interviewees did not give a consistent record of events around this time.  Edwin's sketchbook from 1939 to 1943 certainly confirm that he was in London during that period, but also spent some time in Essex, Hampshire, Sussex, Somerset, Caernarvonshire and Merioneth.  Apart from this, no further evidence has emerged so far from the Olive Cook Papers to shed any light on this stage of his life.

Edwin met Olive Cook in the early 1940s when they were resident in the same house in London. It was around the same time that his first major book,’All the Photo Tricks’ was published. He had already written several short guides for Focal Press, so must have been fairly well established as a photographer by this time. Eventually they shared the bottom two floors of a house in Hampstead, with a studio for traditional art pursuits and Edwin’s darkroom in the basement. They worked together very well, in 1944 contributing to Issue 4 of The Saturday Book together, which brought together Edwin’s visual acuity and Olive’s literary and academic flair. Their contributions and involvement with The Saturday Book continued for the next thirty years. They lived together for a number of years before their marriage in 1954.

But the relationship was more complex than this purely creative collaboration and stemmed in part from the nature of Edwin’s character. Although extremely sociable, and with an impish sense of humour, those interviewed say he could be impatient and astringent and didn’t tolerate fools gladly. He was a very organised person himself and could be quite sharp if he thought someone was being woolly or tiresome, wasting his valuable time. Although a warm and loving person to all accounts his character could also make him a difficult person to live with. However, with Olive he appeared to have found the perfect partner.

The relationship between Edwin and Olive was very happy, but not always calm, according to those we spoke to. They got on extremely well, but there was a tempestuous side to their life when he would get absolutely infuriated with her and threw pots and pans. Although he loved the occasional company of children, it is clear that Edwin did not want children of his own. He would often find unscheduled contact with other people’s children irritating, but the reasons may go deeper than occasional irritation. Children would, on the one hand, compete with painting and photography for his time; and if his art took precedence Edwin would feel guilty at not being the father he thought he should be. His own father’s rejection of him may also have been an influencing factor. Olive did want children and this was a cause of some tension between them, although she accepted it because it was what Edwin wanted.

Everyone interviewed agreed that Olive was incredibly influential in Edwin’s life, contributing to a large extent to the successes he had. She looked after him by attending to the necessities of everyday life; one interviewee suggested that it was almost like a kind of ‘mystical duty’. Olive saw to the practicalities and allowed Edwin to get on with his photography and painting. He was also very deft at carpentry and joinery and he took a great pride in them. Through these skills he was able to transform aspects of their Victorian house in Saffron Walden into the Italianate style they both loved. She was good at dealing with the outside world, finances and the practical side of life and was very clear in her ideas about how things should be. Interviewees recognised that Edwin would never have had the time to pursue his wide-ranging interests if she had not been the one earning a supportive income.

What is not clear from the interviews is what Edwin really believed politically, philosophically or even photographically, in the sense of whose work or beliefs influenced him. These were not things he revealed to outsiders.

While often appearing to be a totally respectable conformist, he was an individualist, even quite anarchic. For example, Edwin refused to pay any taxes, in the words of one interviewee, because he had said ‘he didn’t want to belong to that club.’   However, this might be seen to be somewhat at odds with the meticulous records of expenses that Edwin kept on his photographic trips, presumably for the benefit of the accountant or the tax man or both.  When in Italy working on the Great Houses of Europe (1961) he records 'Porter (Rain long walk) 1000 [lire]' as though to justify what could be seen as an unreasonable expense.

When Edwin died, the Inland Revenue asked Olive for either the substantial back payment he owed or all of Edwin’s work in lieu of it. She refused to give up the work and spent most her remaining years working to pay off the debt.  Olive claimed that Edwin was right-wing politically, but this was not a view shared by many interviewees, who tended to see him on the left rather than the right. She was rather right-wing in her views – certainly a believer in elitism - and it is possible that she retrospectively coloured his views with her own.

The discussions we had with Olive and the interviews with their friends helped to shed some light on Edwin’s life. However dim the light may be from those limited discussions it is valuable because nearly everything that has been written about Edwin to date has been refracted through the lens of Olive. Through her total love and devotion to him, in life and after his death, that lens inevitably became rose-tinted. We may however draw three tentative conclusions.

First, Edwin was a complex man. Influenced by his hard upbringing, a demanding mother, and the unresolved internal tension between being an artist and a photographer, he could be charming and abrasive, relaxed and intolerant, generous and selfish. In this he emerges as more real than the somewhat saintly figure so often portrayed by Olive.

Second, he approached life on his own terms. Writing of his art and his life, Olive says that his approach was to ‘cooperate with the inevitable’. This is not consistent with the man who, among other things, refused to abandon his first wife when the marriage was clearly over; accepted the opprobrium and hardship of being a conscientious objector during World War 2; turned down the chance to be head of Photography at the Royal College of Art (unconfirmed); refused to pay taxes throughout his life and would not have children despite Olive’s wishes. Despite never claiming to be a photographer until the very end of his life, he was sufficiently dedicated to the craft to be a skilled and successful exponent of it over a forty year period. Edwin was not the indifferent person that ‘cooperating with the inevitable’ implies.

Third, Olive was perhaps the most powerful single influence on his life and in promoting his work after his death. Olive and Edward worked together and evolved together. She gave him stability, emotionally and financially, and provided an intellectual framework for his work. Moreover, she believed in him and gave him the freedom to try to be the artist he aspired to be. She succeeded in getting him on the historical map of British photography and keeping him there. As one friend said, ‘It would never have happened if he’d married Mrs Boggs’. To her credit, she played that down. It is easy to see her as an over-loyal widow, but all she wrote about Edwin is about him and not about the important part she played.

Brian Human 
Updated April 2009

(based on a series of interviews conducted in 1989 and the Olive Cook Papers)