Evocations of Place: The Photographs of Edwin Smith By Robert Elwall.
Merrell, 2007.176pp. £35.00
The front cover of this book shows the gardens of the Villa Garzoni at Collodi, Italy, in a photograph of 1962. In oblique view, a faun, seated on one end of a Baroque scroll, raises an arm to support the upper volute.
Receding planes of exotic foliage lead to a high wooded horizon, over which glows a break in the clouds.
It's a typical Edwin Smith image: placing architecture in nature; relishing lichen and moss; sensually recording a place that has been selected by an expert eye and an intrepid traveller, not for the sake of pure art, but no doubt in fulfilment of a commission to illustrate a book. Through a series of cultural frames, it evokes a 20th-century English romantic response to 18th-century and Renaissance responses to antiquity.
Smith, with his polymath scholar wife Olive Cook at his side, would not have missed any of these nuances. These photographs are works of art loaded with associations that Robert Elwall lovingly unravels, setting them in a biographical and historical context to which he brings new information and insights.
He rightly celebrates Cook's achievement, from Smith's premature death in 1971, in making the photos available to publishers, writing a monumental book in 1984, organising exhibitions and much more. An artist in her own right, she concentrated on writing texts for collaborative books and articles that form a counterpart to the photographs.
The books she and Smith jointly produced for Thames and Hudson in the 1950s, printed by photogravure, marked a pivotal moment in the détournement of Modernist vision into the celebration of the humble arts as well as the grand.
A more complete life story emerges of Smith as an attractive, self-educated and indefatigable seeker of visual stimuli, who won a scholarship to the Architectural Association but never qualified as an architect. In his own mind, he was a painter who used photography to make a living.
He was also a writer on diverse subjects - a typical freelance jack-of-all-trades. His archive at the RIBA, which Elwall now manages, contains 6,000 negatives from a working life of 40 years, mostly concentrated in the last 20, and the bibliography records two or three major books a year in the same period, many involving arduous foreign travel.
Other photographers may, in part, have shown the way to the distinctive subjects and styles that Smith made his own, but he need not fear comparison.
Elwall questions whether his relative lack of fame might be due to being 'incurably infected with the peculiarly English disease of sentimental nostalgia or too narrowly parochial'. The answer is, not surprisingly, no, and this book, with its highquality reproductions, if rather small on the page at times, will surely open a new phase of appreciation and reappraisal.
Alan Powers is an architectural historian