Unwrapping the Enigma

Edwin Smith, probable self-portrait.

Despite his claim that he was a photographer only ‘by necessity’, Edwin Smith was one of the most important British photographers of the 20th century. His simple yet distinctive style showed both his unerring visual perception of form and his love of architecture from the vernacular to the grand. The importance of his work derives both from its quality and its breadth. Yet, despite the limited recognition he received during his lifetime and the more prominent promotion of his work by his widow, Olive Cook, following his death, he remains something of an enigma.

In 1989 we put together a proposal for an exhibition and publication to bring together the lifetime work of Edwin Smith across all media: photographs, paintings and drawings, and other art works. Ultimately we were unable to proceed with this, but did gain some insights into the man through talking to Olive and some close friends, a few of whom had worked with him. These notes draw on those discussions, and subsequent research in the Olive Cook Papers (Newnham College, Cambridge), and aim to go a little way towards unwrapping the enigma, adding further insight to already published material.

According to Olive, Edwin’s maternal grandfather was a blacksmith of Scottish-Irish descent who fell for a woman he could not afford to marry; so he immigrated to Canada to earn his fortune as a lumberjack, telling her to wait two years for him. On his return he found her married and with a child; he threw out her husband and moved in. The couple never married, though they had a number of children, one of whom was Edwin’s mother, Lily Beatrice. Olive said that Edwin’s grandfather was very strict and, despite being poor, refused to let the girls go out to work; he believed that their duty was to be at home with their mother.

Ashington, 1936, by Edwin Smith

Perhaps to escape this tyranny, Edwin’s mother eventually ran away to London and took work as a barmaid near Victoria. After moving into employment as a housekeeper, she met Edwin Stanley Smith. They married and Edwin, the only child, was born in 1912. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Edwin’s father, who according to Olive realised the marriage was a mistake, joined up and went to France. He wrote to his wife saying that he wanted a separation; however, Edwin’s mother met him at the station on his return and took him back to the family home.

Olive claimed that Edwin Stanley then became active in the Labour Party, had an affair, got into trouble embezzling Party funds and was sent to prison. He wrote from prison to Edwin’s mother saying again that their marriage was over.  When he was released she and the young Edwin met him at the prison gate: he again declared that he didn’t want to live with his wife. They were never reconciled and, so far as we know, Edwin never saw his father again. Olive maintained that Edwin’s experience as a child of being dragged across London to the prison in the darkness of early morning forever put him off getting up early!

In later life Olive saw a great deal of Edwin’s mother and concluded that she was over-protective, even fixated and obsessive about him. Edwin’s relationship with his mother was apparently always strained and his early years spent living, ‘in the top back room in Camden Town’, as he put it, were a major influence on the rest of his life. He felt obliged to see his mother almost daily when he and Olive lived in London and he helped to take care of her. Although she eventually followed them to Saffron Walden in Essex when Edwin and Olive moved there, Olive said he tried to break free of her and would visit her only occasionally. Perhaps ironically, she outlived him.

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