British photographic history

Information and discussion on all aspects of British photographic history

Exhibition: Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith

In September 2014, RIBA’s new Architecture Gallery will present the first major retrospective of Edwin Smith (1912 – 1971), one of Britain’s foremost 20th century photographers. Hailed by Sir John Betjeman as a ‘genius at photography’ and by Cecil Beaton as ‘an understanding and loving connoisseur of his subject’, Edwin Smith captured the essence of the places, landscapes and buildings he photographed.

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith will display 100 extraordinary black and white photographs from a collection of over 60,000 negatives given by Olive Cook, Smith’s widow and collaborator, to the RIBA Library. From urban scenes documenting British social history to evocative landscape images and atmospheric interiors, the images displayed reveal the genius and breadth of his work. Alongside his images of Britain the exhibition will show photographs taken on his travels to Europe as well as his published books and photographic equipment. Specially filmed contributions ranging from Alan Bennett to broadcaster Gillian Darley offer personal perspectives of Smith’s work.

Edwin Smith was highly sought-after by publishers and in the 1950s he was commissioned by Thames & Hudson for a series of books, among them English Parish Churches (1952), English Cottages & Farmhouses (1954), Scotland (1955), England (1957), and The Living City: A New View of the City of London (1957). He was also commissioned by Vogue, Shell Guides and numerous other magazines and writers to illustrate features and books on subjects varying from Great Houses of Europe to The Wonders of Italy.

The late Robert Elwall, author of Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith and previous curator of the RIBA Photographs Collection:

“The recurring themes of Edwin Smith’s work – a concern for the fragility of the environment, both natural and man-made; an acute appreciation of the need to combat cultural homogenization by safeguarding regional diversity; and, above all, a conviction that architecture should be rooted in time and place – are as pressing today as when Smith first framed them in his elegantly precise compositions.”   

Valeria Carullo, RIBA, co-curator of the exhibition: “Edwin Smith’s images provoke an immediate emotional response and at the same time offer the opportunity for observation and reflection. This exhibition offers a timely reappraisal of his exceptional work and emphasises the prominent place he deserves in the history of British photography”

As post-war social and urban change began to alter the look and character of British towns and cities a movement to save Britain’s heritage gained momentum. The 1950s saw the birth of the Victorian Society and in 1951 the first volume of Pevsner’s Buildings of England was published. Smith shared similar sensibilities and his work contributed to the appreciation of traditional British architecture, local craftsmanship and regional building materials.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a series of talks, films and events. 

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith

Exhibition: 10 September 2014 – 6 December 2014  

Architecture Gallery, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London, W1


Image: St Lawrence, Didmarton, Gloucestershire (1961) © Edwin Smith / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Views: 602

Add a Comment

You need to be a member of British photographic history to add comments!

Join British photographic history

Comment by Roy Hammans on June 10, 2014 at 10:35

For anyone interested in learning more about Smith, please visit the extensive resource on my website:

© 2020   Created by Michael Pritchard.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service