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A Cabinet of Curiosities: 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.

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 ©RIBApixIt 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'.7 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.

Reflecting Smith's training, he had studied at the prestigious Architectural Association in London - the couple frequently tackled architectural subjects but typically tended to focus on the offbeat such as follies and the postman Ferdinand Cheval's gro tesquely surreal self-built Palais Ideal at Hauterives. Above all The Saturday Book offered the perfect vehicle for Smith to express his relish for the incongruous and his facility for discerning the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.

Rooftops, Whitby, by Edwin Smith. ©RIBApixBesides the stellar cast of its contributors, a number of constants can be discerned amidst this 'mixty-maxty', as a contemporary reviewer dubbed the journal. First, the editors' emphasis on the purely escapist nature of their enterprise was somewhat disingenuous as the The Saturday Book equally displayed 'an affectionate concern with the unfashionable and the neglected'. Chief among these were its advocacy of folk art and more particularly its espousal of Victorian culture at a time when Britain's nineteenth-century legacy was almost universally despised. Smith and Cook were passionate proponents of both. Encouraged by his friend Enid Marx, herself one of the foremost authorities on folk art, Smith had at the outset of his photographic career in the 1930s concentrated primarily on the varied manifestations of popular culture-the pub, music hall and especially the circus and fairground. This choice of subject matter was in part inspired by his admiration for the work of the great French photographer Eugene Atget (1857-1927), but whereas Atget's photographs, taken on a large format camera, were elegiac in tone, Smith's more spontaneous images, created with a hand-held Leica, were celebrations of a still vibrant culture. When some of these photographs were published for the first time in The Saturday Book 11 (197I) they came as a revelation to those who only knew Smith's photography through his later painstak­ingly crafted evocations of place. 'Once despised as crude and uncultivated, its vivid and eloquent spontaneity now appeals' declared Smith and Cook of popular art in a joint article written for The Saturday Book 8 (1948) before going on to explore in subsequent issues such subjects as ships' figureheads, Christmas fancies and, most engagingly, seaside artefacts. For Smith and Cook popular art was a living tradition that held important lessons for contemporary designers not least as a mellowing antidote to what they perceived as the sterile functionalism of Modernism.

Their admiration for the exuberance of Victorian art and architecture was similarly grounded and mirrored Russell's own ardent appreciation which had led him to discover a cache of Victorian photographs which he used to illustrate The Saturday Book 3 (1943). In 947, in a move that signalled a shift away from his pre-war social reportage photography towards a greater engagement with architecture, Smith was commissioned by Art and Technics to write and illustrate a book on the Gothic Revival.

The photographs display his deep love of his subject matter, but, allowing his enthusiasm to get the better of him, Smith produced a text that greatly exceeded the stipulated length and consequently remained unpublished . The Saturday Book thereupon became the chief means by which he and Cook proselytised Victorian achievements with articles about pictures before the cinematograph. Additionally, in 'The Saturday Book 18 published in 1958, a year after the Victorian Society had been established, Smith illustrated an article on British architecture by fellow enthusiast and one of the Society's founders, John Betjeman, which evinced a distinct bias towards Victorian buildings.

A second consistent refrain of The Saturday Book was its commitment to the provision of high-quality illustrations together with an appreciative recognition that these 'need not all be subservient to the text, mere illustrations to it: some could be articles, as it were, in their own right, telling a story visually.' This was a concept brilliantly exploited by Smith and Cook who did much to rescue the magazine from its unpromising beginning. Text-heavy and illustrated with wood-engravings, the inaugural issue was not well received and as Hadfield later admitted sales only picked up once a scrapbook type of layout had been introduced in issue 3 and, crucially, many more pictures, including a generous number in colour, accommodated in issue 4 ( 1944). Among these were the illustrations to Smith's debut article, 'The Domestic Shell', which Hadfield reckoned proclaimed Smith as 'a most accomplished and original photographer of buildings'. In truth the photographs are competent but uninspiring. Of more importance for the future was the way in which, within the confines of a rather conventional page layout, Smith integrated text and illustrations so that both together advanced his argument that 'simplicity in good material is the only means to grace and dignity in domestic architecture' In later issues Smith and Cook grew more inventive encouraged by the magazine's other mainstay, its coruscatingly imaginative designer, Laurence Scarfe, who had recommended Smith to Russell. A good example can be found in The Saturday Book 9 (1949) with Smith and Cook's piece on shops entitled 'The One in the Window' where Smith's rather surreal black and white photo­graphs, taken a decade earlier and much inspired by Atget, are adroitly mixed with colour reproductions of postcards and other artefacts including a toy theatre set for Aladdin made by Benjamm Pollock Ltd. It was this intoxicating blend of photographs of actual places and objets d'art combined with reproductions of paintings, prints and engravings, many in colour, that rendered The Saturday Book so visually seductive. It also testifies both to Smith and Cook's discerning eye and their ability to make telling connections between widely disparate images and from them construct a coherent narrative. Both were accomplished artists and there is a collage quality to their pictorial essays which proved so popular that a special collection of them published in 1955 sold out almost immediately.

As Russell recalled, the couple's involvement went beyond writing and illustration: 'both prodigies, they were an editor’s dream. They did everything themselves, layout included, you just sent the words to the printers and the pictures to the blockmakers.' This experience with The Saturday Book was to prove invaluable in Smith's later dealings with publishers. Not only did it give him a thorough grounding in the rudiments of page layout, it also gave him an insight into how best to render his photographs suitable for reproduction: 'the photographer should not fill the frame, but should allow a considerable latitude for trim, both for "bleeds" and for any difficulties of fitting a halftone reproduction to a layout.' These considerations underline the fact that the notion of an 'original', definitive print in Smith's archive has little meaning as images pulled from the same negative frequently recur in different versions in different contexts. In addition few of Smith's negatives can be printed straight and there are often significant variations in the prints he himself produced reflecting the uses to which they were to be put. But like his accomplished forebear Frederick Evans, to whose imagery his photography bears certain affinities, Smith was not enamoured of halftone, preferring instead the much more subtle photogravure which, making an exception to its usual policy, The Saturday Book 3 had used to illustrate an article on Evans. Photogravure was the process employed to stunning effect in Smith's classic works for Thames and Hudson such as The Wonders of Italy (196 5) with plates by the leading specialist firm, Braun et Cie, and he was bitterly disappointed when it became too costly to use in the late 1960s. When Thomas Nelson came to publish his and Cook's The English House through Seven Centuries in 1968, Smith revealed the publishing house was experimenting with duotone, 'in which a double printing attempts to get over the rather depressing greyness of Photolitho. The proofs they showed me had not succeeded in this ... I would of course like to insist that the book was done in gravure by one of the first-rate continental firms- this is the only way to get the best out of the pictures and to match up to my prints. But I am too reasonable to be a "primo-signore" ... I did a book for Weidenfeld (Great Interiors) which was printed photolitho and the results in my opinion are dismal (though the colour plates in the book are the best I have had, which is a consolation).' This quotation vividly emphasises the care and attention Smith devoted to the way in which his photographs were reproduced. Photographic historians should take note.