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

Distant spires

Michael Strutt, Distant Spires (2)

Michael Strutt is a clock restorer, a bell ringer (at Gosberton) and a photographer. He use Blipfoto, which has the distinction of allowing photographers to add only one photo a day, taken on the day it is shared. The resulting photo diaries allow the viewer to imagine the connections. They highlight how sequencing images – putting one after another, making a beginning, middle and end – nourishes our natural instinct to compose stories.

With Michael’s permission, here are two of his images of churches, which he captioned ‘Distant Spires’. Although I see steeples all the time, as I drive across the fenland, I’ve found it hard to capture the feel of them with the camera. There is a visual paradox at play here. Last night, coming home from Wrangle, I noticed again how much taller the Boston Stump seems from a distance than it does when you get closer. So it’s a pleasure to be able to share these fine photographs.

Links

Michael Strutt, Distant Spires (1)

The original skyscrapers

Boston Stump

The train curved round and then I saw, for the first time, that astonishing church tower known as the ‘Boston Stump’. This tower is not quite three hundred feet high; but nevertheless, situated as it is, it looked to me more impressive, not as a piece of architecture, but simply as a skyscraper, than the Empire State Building in New York, with its eleven hundred feet. It is all a matter of contrast. Here the country is flat; you have seen nothing raised more than twenty or thirty feet from the ground, for miles and miles; and then suddenly this tower shoots up to nearly three hundred feet. The result is that at first it looks as high as a mountain. Your heart goes out to those old Bostonians who, weary of the Lincolnshire levels and the flat ocean, made up their minds to build and build into the blue. If God could not give them height, they would give it to him.

J. B. Priestley, English Journey, 1932

Apparently, the earliest appearance of the word ‘skyscraper’ relates to the topmost, triangular sail on a square-rigged sailing ship, in the late 18th century – something that must have been familiar in a port like Boston.

But church towers and spires have been stretching up to scratch the heavens for centuries. Competitive pride pushed communities to outdo each other, especially in wool-rich counties like Somerset and Lincolnshire. Travellers on the Great North Road seeing the distant spires of Grantham and Newark must have debated which was the finer. Lincoln Cathedral, visible for miles around on its cliff, once capped its towers with wooden spires, the tallest of which collapsed in 1549, not to be replaced.

Running like a thread through all these stories is the idea of humanity challenging the deity by daring to leave the earth and, like Icarus, falling to destruction.

Links

Boston Church, Lincolnshire," by James Harrison (1814-1866), watercolour. Dated 1821
Boston Church, Lincolnshire,” by James Harrison (1814-1866), watercolour. Dated 1821