Unwrapping the Enigma

Rosemary Smith née Ansell, 1939; Photograph by Edwin Smith

In his early twenties Edwin met Rosemary Ansell, daughter of Henry Ansell, a confectioner, and despite objections from his mother, they married in 1935. Olive suggested that the marriage may not have been consummated for several years, with the additional burden of Edwin’s mother getting in the way of any attempt to establish a normal married life.

Olive’s version of events maintained that, as a consequence of the difficulties in his marriage, Edwin had other women friends and possibly lovers. However, he refused to leave Rosemary as he didn’t want to repeat what had happened to his mother and father. Eventually a son, Martin, was born in 1941 but the relationship appears to have broken down irretrievably soon after and the marriage ended in divorce two years later. We don’t know for sure if Edwin and Martin remained in regular contact, although there is some evidence to suggest that they did.

Vogue fashion shoot, 1930s. The only time Edwin Smith ventured into such territory.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Edwin was eligible to be conscripted, although with his surname being alphabetically some way down the list he was not called up immediately. Olive claimed he objected on principle – he didn’t agree with ‘legalised murder’ as he described it. He attended a tribunal in London to explain why he had not answered the call-up. At the end of the hearing Edwin walked out and appears to have spent the rest of the war years on the run. On at least one occasion, Olive reported, Edwin avoided being taken by the military police by passing himself off as Stuart Smith, another conscientious objector with whom he was good friends and shared a house. Later the house where he stayed was under surveillance by the police and Edwin went to live on Hampstead Heath where Olive would take him food. These stories are not easy to reconcile with the usual biography that says he worked as a camouflage artist during the War. Although he may indeed have worked in a camouflage factory at some point, interviewees did not give a consistent record of events around this time.  Edwin’s sketchbook from 1939 to 1943 certainly confirm that he was in London during that period, but also spent some time in Essex, Hampshire, Sussex, Somerset, Caernarvonshire and Merioneth.  Apart from this, no further evidence has emerged so far from the Olive Cook Papers to shed any light on this stage of his life.

The first edition of ‘All The Photo Tricks’, 1940

Edwin met Olive Cook in the early 1940s when they were resident in the same house in London. It was around the same time that his first major book,’All the Photo Tricks’ was published. He had already written several short guides for Focal Press, so must have been fairly well established as a photographer by this time. Eventually they shared the bottom two floors of a house in Hampstead, with a studio for traditional art pursuits and Edwin’s darkroom in the basement. They worked together very well, in 1944 contributing to Issue 4 of The Saturday Book together, which brought together Edwin’s visual acuity and Olive’s literary and academic flair. Their contributions and involvement with The Saturday Book continued for the next thirty years. They lived together for a number of years before their marriage in 1954.

Church Farm Approved School, East Barnet, Herts, 1937 by Edwin Smith

But the relationship was more complex than this purely creative collaboration and stemmed in part from the nature of Edwin’s character. Although extremely sociable, and with an impish sense of humour, those interviewed say he could be impatient and astringent and didn’t tolerate fools gladly. He was a very organised person himself and could be quite sharp if he thought someone was being woolly or tiresome, wasting his valuable time. Although a warm and loving person to all accounts his character could also make him a difficult person to live with. However, with Olive he appeared to have found the perfect partner.

The relationship between Edwin and Olive was very happy, but not always calm, according to those we spoke to. They got on extremely well, but there was a tempestuous side to their life when he would get absolutely infuriated with her and threw pots and pans. Although he loved the occasional company of children, it is clear that Edwin did not want children of his own. He would often find unscheduled contact with other people’s children irritating, but the reasons may go deeper than occasional irritation. Children would, on the one hand, compete with painting and photography for his time; and if his art took precedence Edwin would feel guilty at not being the father he thought he should be. His own father’s rejection of him may also have been an influencing factor. Olive did want children and this was a cause of some tension between them, although she accepted it because it was what Edwin wanted.

Somerstown, London, 1930s, by Edwin Smith

Everyone interviewed agreed that Olive was incredibly influential in Edwin’s life, contributing to a large extent to the successes he had. She looked after him by attending to the necessities of everyday life; one interviewee suggested that it was almost like a kind of ‘mystical duty’. Olive saw to the practicalities and allowed Edwin to get on with his photography and painting. He was also very deft at carpentry and joinery and he took a great pride in them. Through these skills he was able to transform aspects of their Victorian house in Saffron Walden into the Italianate style they both loved. She was good at dealing with the outside world, finances and the practical side of life and was very clear in her ideas about how things should be. Interviewees recognised that Edwin would never have had the time to pursue his wide-ranging interests if she had not been the one earning a supportive income.

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