Smith's images lovingly capture a Britain that was soon to disappear, if not the forces that would destroy it, says Owen Hatherley
Over the past few years in Britain, something strange has happened to the canon of 20th-century art history. Several artists, photographers, writers and architects whose initial fame was eclipsed from the 1960s onwards by hipper, harsher, more modern names, have had their revenge – the Englishness of English Art brigade, in short.
The likes of John Betjeman, John Piper, Eric Ravilious and Abram Games, and their patrons such as Kenneth Clark and Frank Pick, are all names to conjure with in the 2010s, to the point where you might forget that they had faded into obscurity some decades ago, having been dismissed as parochial and insular, and a side issue to main events such as abstraction, brutalism and pop art. The latest to be reclaimed, it would seem, is the photographer Edwin Smith, whose images of Britain from the 1930s to the late 1960s were the subject of an exhibition at the RIBA this year.
As a title, Ordinary Beauty captures this aesthetic pretty well. It is not "ordinary" in the sense that pop artists meant it – the mundane but bright, ultramodern and exciting world of Americanised consumer culture – but in the sense of an England (and sometimes, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) of bad weather, sooty buildings, eccentricity. An England pervaded with history, or rather a haphazard piling-up of imperial detritus. An austerity Britain so intense you can smell the Bovril.
Now this particular country barely exists, as demonstrated by the need to revive it through Keep Calm and Carry On posters, mock-50s caffs, Labour and Wait and Farrow & Ball. That, of course, now makes it rather extraordinary. Smith's eye is a good one to see this disappeared country through – fond, detailed and often overtaken by longing-inducing pea-soupers.
Born in Camden in 1912, Smith progressed through a brief experimental period in the 30s to find his form as a conscious chronicler of soon-to-be-bygone Britain. The earliest work on display was very much of its time: social documentary photography of a divided country during the Great Depression, with a naughty bit of Bauhaus-influenced abstraction here and there.
Already, the perspective is aesthetic rather than agitational. In a 1936 project on north-east England funded by a Tory MP, miners on iron staircases are elegant constructivist compositions, while "herring girls" are seen at work from behind, gutting their fish in an environment both ordered and filthy. The images of funfairs from the same time show a love of cheap entertainment and kitsch that must have been refreshing in that rather high-minded decade.
With war and its aftermath, Smith's eye moved towards recording historical architecture, both in the neo-Victorian magazine The Summer Book and in a series of impressive photo-monographs on England and Scotland. At the same time, Smith had an equally typical inclination towards educating his audience in the tricks of the trade, publishing several photography manuals.
A panel in the exhibition showed how he retouched an image of the geodesic domes of RAF Fylingdales radar base in Yorkshire – a rare image of a modern building – to give it a spooky moonlight that nature itself did not provide.
Smith's images of 19th-century buildings and landscapes are never banal, for all their nostalgia – the attention to detail and use is always intriguing. Two juxtaposed photographs showed his range well. One, of the Royal Exchange in London, uses the old Bauhaus techniques to abstract its grand portico, with a lone figure creeping up the steps; the other, of William Burges' Cardiff Castle, depicts an overstuffed, overdecorated interior, dreamlike and claustrophobic. Both show a modern sensibility re-interpreting the 19th century.
You can see how photographs like these helped the cause of preservation, by making the grimy, gimcrack architecture of the Victorians look fascinating and dreamy. They are, on their own terms, great architectural photographs. Compare them with the work of his contemporaries, however, and it is striking what's missing – the love of modernity in the photographs of John Maltby, the harsh class conflicts of Bill Brandt. Smith shows a rather genial, if unhealthy, world. Here's a street in Derry in 1965, its higgledy-piggledy streets bedecked with bunting. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith ran at the RIBA, London, from 10 September to 6 December 2014
Images: RIBA Library Photographs Collection