Learning to look: Edwin Smith

Browsing in a secondhand bookshop, thirty years ago, I came across a large format book entitled English Abbeys and Priories, filled with page after page of the most beautiful black and white photographs. I’d always loved photography and knew the work of people like Robert Capa, Bill Brandt, Don McCullin and, most of all then, Henri Cartier-Bresson. But Edwin Smith was a new name, and his work had none of the drama or narratives of modern life I’d been drawn to before. These images of ancient buildings seemed timeless, not least because they rarely included people.

Though the book seemed expensive at the time, it has been one of my most rewarding possessions. I’ve spent hours looking at the photogravure plates – a costly form of reproduction rarely used nowadays but capable of giving deep blacks and silvery greys that beautifully captured the subtle tones of Smith’s work. And over the years, I found other books by Edwin Smith: English Cottages and Farmhouses, Scotland, Ireland, Pompeii, Athens and many others. Sometimes his photographs were just used as illustrations but the best volumes, usually published by Thames and Hudson in the 1950s and 1960s, were long photo-essays of a kind publishers no longer produce. And the best of these were created with his wife, the writer and artist Olive Cook: it is rare to find two creative sensibilities so well attuned as these.

Smith was an artist at heart, though he had little success as painter or draughtsman. The only exhibition of his paintings, in 1944, earned a single sale and he later observed that he must be the only artist with a complete collection of his own work. Although it was in photography that he found artistic success, his real peers are artists like Edward Bawden, Peggy Angus, Enid Marx, John Piper and Eric Ravilious.

Edwin Smith died in 1971, aged only 59, but his work, never fashionable, was already out of time. Neo-romantic in spirit, it was a conscious resistance to certain aspects of the modern world, including its tendency to make everywhere look the same. And that matters not just for reasons of aesthetics or sentimentality but because the places where we live shape how we live.

In art, as in life, this perspective always risks nostalgia and worse. It is easily dismissed as backward-looking, fuddy-duddy even. But the voices who question the headlong rush towards progress are important, and sometimes they are right. In the anxious times we live in today, there has been a revival of interest in the 20th century English neo-romantic artists like Angus, Piper and Ravilious. Edwin Smith, whose photographic archive is held by the RIBA, is being rediscovered with a major exhibition of his work in London this autumn. It will have been worth the wait.

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith

Ancient and Modern

Medieval visions

Wrangle Church is known to architectural historians for its rare 14th century stained glass. Such survivals are unusual in English parish churches because artistic work associated with Roman Catholicism was frowned upon after Henry VIII established a Protestant Church of England, and especially by the convinced advocates of Puritanism in the 17th century. Statues, metalwork, books, paintings and stained glass were all stripped out, broken, burnt or sold. The people of Wrangle saved at least some of their ancient glass by burying it; but when it was safe to retrieve it, centuries later, its original design had been forgotten, so the glass in the north aisle windows is beautiful but hard to decipher.

Olive Cook, who produced some of the finest post-war books on English buildings and topography with her husband, the photographer Edwin Smith, gives a good account of Wrangle’s medieval stained glass:

An inscription formerly part of this splendid window is recorded to have stated that it was made to the order of Thomas de Wynesty, Abbot of Waltham from 1345 to 1371. A late mediaeval date for the glass is indicated by the naturalism of the figures, the type of armour worn by the soldiers (camail, bascinet and sallet, which replaced the bascinet), the predominance of canopy work, by the fact that the mosaic technique of early glass painting has been abandoned for larger areas of colour and above all by the use of silver nitrate (a late 14th century discovery) to produce a magical range of yellow tints ranging from the palest lemon to rich amber.

English Parish Churches, Edwin Smith, Olive Cook & Graham Hutton, 1976

A modern vision

But it would be a pity, in admiring this valuable ancient work, to miss the latest addition to Wrangle’s artistic treasures: a stained glass window in the south aisle, dedicated to Lincolnshire farming. It was commissioned by Harry Clarke, a worshipper in the church of St Mary and St Nicholas for 64 years, the window was installed in 1997.

It is entirely contemporary in style, with its sky streaking across the panels in bright colours not found in older glass But the heavy horse and the old tractor – a Massey Ferguson or Fordson Major, perhaps – on which Harry Clarke sits, recall an older time, so there is a little nostalgia in the image too. There is also a wealth of detail to find: a crouching cat, a patient dog and lots of birds. There will be children who will come to love this window for generations to come, as their eyes gradually discover its treasures.

And in one corner, a reminder of something that happened when the artist was working on the window: ‘Diana, Princess of Wales, died in Paris, 31 August 1997, RIP’. So is another piece of history, and art, laid down in a parish church on the Lincolnshire coast.