Edwin Smith Drawings
An obsessive painter and drawer to the end then, but how good was he?
Mrs Horwood acknowledged that he really wasn’t known at all as a painter, though in her view: ‘I’m quite certain, being the person he was, had he wanted to become a painter he could and would have changed direction.’ But Phoebe Pickard believed that he would have given up photography for painting if he could have afforded to, but was not convinced by the quality of his work and his ability to survive on his painting: ‘No, I don’t think so. There are so many painters, aren’t there?’ The sketchbooks show a very competent and confident standard of draughtsmanship.
Norman Scarfe told an interesting tale. ‘I worked for a long time with John Piper, he was the general editor of the Shell Guides. He and John Betjeman were doing the Shell Guides when I was asked to do the Suffolk guide, and I was quite fortunate then that I had been working a bit with Edwin and there were a lot of pictures of Edwin’s of Suffolk that I was prepared to use. But one of the very strange things about painters and artists is that they don’t always see one another’s merits and John Piper really did not like Edwin’s work …. I think they may have had some kind of personal disagreement, I honestly don’t know what it was. I was in this embarrassing position of always wanting to have him [Edwin] in books…. and of course Edwin’s pictures of all those places are better than anybody else’s. But John wouldn’t have that and he wouldn’t have any of them if possible…. It was partly, you see, Edwin had this feeling that he wasn’t so much a photographer as a painter and John Piper’s feeling was I think to some extent that he was a great photographer and not a great painter.’ (In her definitive biography Nikolaus Pevsner The Life (Chatto & Windus 2011) Susie Harries records: ‘Lionel Brett agreed: “Piper was a person who had betes noires, and I think for some reason Nikolaus was one of his betes noires…”‘ (p. 438). Maybe Edwin Smith was one too.)
Asked if Smith could judge his own work Mrs Horwood said ‘Oh, yes, I think he knew exactly what was good.’ Norman Scarfe said: ‘I think he was really quite proud of his own [work]’. There seems to have been a real sense in which he tolerated doing the photography and then got back to the drawing which he thoroughly enjoyed. Scarfe concluded: ‘I don’t think he was spoofing, I don’t think it was pretentiousness or anything like that, he just saw that his drawing was worth more to him than any photograph he had ever taken.’ The sketchbooks show a firm grip on reality, but also taste for fantasy and allowing the imagination free rein. Ruscha Schorr-Kohn may have got to the heart of it when she said, ‘To me his paintings are full of the yearning for something – paradise probably.’
updated 18th February 2013