Matrix – The Saturday Book

The cover of Matrix 27, Winter 2007.

This article, by Robert Elwall, appeared in Matrix 27 in 2007. It discusses Edwin Smith and Olive Cook’s involvement with The Saturday Book, which he called ‘A Cabinet of Curiosities’ .

A Cabinet of Curiosities – by Robert Elwall

It is a fact all too commonly overlooked by photographic historians and critics that the potency and influence of the photograph is more generally derived from its printed reproduction than from the hallowed but often little seen original print. The importance of rendering the photographic image compatible with the printing press was however recognised from the very invention of the medium with the Art ‘Journal repeatedly trumpeting the benefits that would accrue from ‘the application of the solar pencil to the general purposes of book illustration’.

Consequently the latter half of the nineteenth century witnessed feverish experiments, as Lady Eastlake put it in 1857, ‘to transform the photographic plate into a surface capable of being printed’. Despite some successes, including the exquisitely sensitive collotype process, the generally unsatisfactory outcome of much of this experimentation can be gauged from the frequency with which photographs were laboriously copied into other media such as wood-engravings or cumbersomely and expensively pasted onto the printed page. Real progress was only made in the 1880s with the introduction of the halftone block which for the first time allowed photographs and type to be printed together, thus revolutionising photography and giving the photographer ready access to a large new audience. On an image­ dependent subject: such as architecture the effects of the halftone revolution were especially pronounced with magazines, among them The Architectural Review (founded 1896) and Country Life (1897), springing up to take advantage of the new illustrative technology. Henceforth their illustrations and those of the book publishing companies with which they were associated were to be of critical importance in the way ideas were transmitted and buildings perceived.

Vita Sackville-West’s Boots, Photograph by Edwin Smith ©RIBApix

It is against this backdrop that the career of one of Britain’s finest architectural and topographical photographers, Edwin Smith (1912-71), must in large part be assessed. Few of Smith’s photographs were exhibited in his lifetime and his reputation as ‘the English Atget’ therefore rests almost entirely on the rich body of publications. In particular he forged a highly successful and long­lasting collaboration with Thames and Hudson the firm founded in 1949 by the Viennese émigré Walter Neurath and the Berlin-born Eva Feuchtwang, who were concerned to foster a new visual awareness in a country they considered overtly dominated by its visual heritage. It was Smith’s poignant imagery of a disappearing world in the second of his books for Thames and Hudson, English Cottages and Farmhouses (1954) that prompted John Betjeman to declare Smith ‘a genius at photography’ while twenty-three years later it was his empathetic documentation in Weidenfeld and Nicolson’s Great Interiors (1967) that similarly moved fellow photographer Cecil Beaton to hail Smith as ‘an understanding and loving connoisseur of his subject’.

It was precisely through such lavishly illustrated publications that Smith’s work reached a wider public and one of the most interesting ventures in this regard was his long involvement with The Saturday Book. This was the first fruit of his collaboration with the art historian Olive Cook whom he had met in 1943 and was to marry in 1954. In their brillian conjoining of authoritative information and emotional intensity, Cook’s erudite and lucid commentaries perfectly complemented Smith’s photographs, appearing alongside them in many of his books as well as The Saturday Book. Singly or together from issue 4 of The Saturday Book (1944) they contributed to all of its numbers being, as the magazine’s editor generously acknow ledged, chiefly ‘responsible for the odd, individual and imaginative visual quality of the book’. In turn The Saturday Book not only provided an important outlet for Smith’s photography but also the concerns that underpinned it.

Although it ran for thirty-four annual issues between 1941 and 1975 – failing to appear only in 1974 when it fell victim to the three-day week – surprisingly little has been written about The Saturday Book. Published by Hutchinson appropriately in time for Christmas each year, it was the brainchild of the literary editor Leonard Russell whose wife, the film critic Dilys Powell, was a frequent contributor. The magazine unashamedly rejoiced in the playful eclecticism of its contents, its visual sensuousness and its wilful disregard of issues and what it termed ‘withitry’. Drawing on the example of the Strand Magazine it sought to revive the ‘catholicity of interest’ that Russell bemoaned had ‘disappeared from English illustrated journalism’. Even the most casual glance at the contents page of any The Saturday Book demonstrates how triumphantly Russell and his successor as editor from 1951 John Hadfield [see Matrix I, pp. 5 3-9] fulfilled this brief. Thus The Saturday Book 12 (1952) contains, in addition to seaside photographs by Smith, sketches along the Seine by Robert Gibbings; articles on the Titanic, embroidery, island life, gardens of the great, pigmies, Colette, ‘Sun and Fun’, and jazz, by Derek Hudson, Olive Cook, Sir Compton Mackenzie, Miles Hadfield, Calm Turnbull, Kay Dick, John Betjeman, and Humphrey Lyttelton respectively; as well as short stories by among others Walter Mare and John Pudney. Given licence by the editors to ‘indulge their personal pleasure in buildings, artifacts and “curiosities.’, Smith and Cook typically ranged widely in their own contributions. With pieces on the art of adornment, the pleasures of snuff, bicycling, topiary, London street markets and even the pictorial retelling of traditional tales such as Bluebeard in a ‘nee-Elizabethan narrative strip’, all intensifying the magazine’s idiosyncratic allure.

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