Thursday, 11 September 2014

Lost Worlds: Edwin Smith & Ed Kluz

Edwin Smith, church interior, 1950s, copyright Edwin Smith/RIBA Library Photo Collection
At some point in the late 1960s my grandparents went on a bit of a book-buying spree, so that when I was very young their house seemed to be packed with tomes too massive for me to lift. There were books on the Renaissance, Myths and Legends, Rembrandt and Picasso, but none of these were as huge as 'The English House Through Seven Centuries', which loomed so large it might have contained actual houses.

But eventually I was bigger than the book and years later I opened it to find myself in a lost world of moated granges, austere halls and cottages that seemed to have emerged fully formed from the earth. Photographed in black and white and with few signs of human presence, the buildings seemed to belong not so much to the past but to another reality, one that was rather nobler and a lot less messy than ours: the world of photographer Edwin Smith.

The text, by contrast, was sprightly. I didn't think it was possible to write about architecture without being crashingly dull but Olive Cook - Smith's wife and collaborator - soon had me hooked. She was a wonderfully lucid, entertaining writer and the ideal foil to her husband, and the pair were commissioned to create numerous books about English places and buildings. After Edwin's death Olive donated his life's work - some 60,000 negatives and as third as many prints - to the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a very select selection of these pictures has just gone on show at RIBA's gallery in Portland Place.

Edwin Smith, 'Ideal' fish & chip shop, London, 1958, copyright Edwin Smith/RIBA Library Photo Collection
'Ordinary Beauty' features images of urban scenes documenting British social life, atmospheric interiors and evocative landscapes overseas, along with published books and photographic equipment. Alan Bennett even makes an appearance on film, offering a personal take on Smith's life and work.

Olive and Edwin were great pals of Peggy Angus and Tirzah Ravilious (whose son James was inspired by the photographer in his choice of career), and they included Furlongs in their haunting book of English cottages. Smith's photo of the interior, which is reproduced in 'Peggy Angus: Designer, Teacher, Painter', is almost unique in making the cottage appear neat and tidy. I wonder if it's in the exhibition... (see below)

Meanwhile, in another part of the country... actually just down the road in Kent, Mascalls Gallery is about to launch an exhibition which also relates to buildings of the past. For a number of years Sussex-based artist Ed Kluz has been making collages and prints of old houses and eccentric structures, borrowing from a tradition that stretches back through John Piper to the topographers of the 18th century to create unmistakeably 21st century artworks.

Ed Kluz, Fonthill Abbey, 2013, collage (artist's copyright)
The Mascalls exhibition is Ed's first solo museum show, and for it he has found a particularly intriguing subject. In the Lincolnshire village where I grew up there was a park in which stood a humdrum brick building known as The Butler's Pantry. This was all that remained of the Hall, a grand old place with Jacobean origins, Georgian symmetry and a tower added by a Victorian; it was knocked down the year we arrived, leaving me with a tantalising half-memory of creeper-covered brick and empty windows.

Our Hall was one of countless houses of similar size that were demolished during the 1950s and 1960s, a state of affairs highlighted by the V&A's 1974 exhibition 'The Destruction of the Country House'. Now Ed Kluz is returning to the subject, and marking the 40th anniversary of the V&A show, with 'The Lost House Revisited', in which he explores both the creation and the destruction of Britain's great country houses. A must for Romantics!

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith is at RIBA until 6 Dec.
Ed Kluz: The Lost House Revisited is at Mascalls Gallery, Paddocks Wood, Kent, from 20 Sept to 13 Dec.

PS Made it to RIBA on Friday and thoroughly enjoyed the Edwin Smith show - I thought all those black and white images together might be a bit dry, but the exhibition is beautifully curated, with imaginative use of the room and larger displays to break up the photos. Highlights? A ploughed field with a farmhouse in the distance... A funerary statue from Pompeii... Pictures of clowns (a surprise, that). There were far more people in the photos than I had expected, mostly I think from before the war. Altogether a wonderful introduction to and celebration of a great 20th century talent.

There isn't a catalogue but Merrell have reissued 'Evocations of Place: The Photography of Edwin Smith', which I think came out originally in 2007. Very good reproductions of a wide range of work, and a readable essay by the late Robert Elwall. Would have been nice to have an essay putting Smith in context of our current rediscovery of all things mid-20th century - but you can't have everything!


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