Edwin Smith at the Fry

30 June 2013
Ben Pentreath

Life is a journey of discovery: of making connections, working out your interests, finding the common threads that create the rich warp and weft of your particular piece of cloth.

What I’m fascinated by is the disparate nature of everything that somehow… hangs together. When I was a young guy, first working for the architect Charles Morris in Norfolk, I was partly a blank piece of clay, partly already moulded by my short years and experience. I was about 20 when I first did work experience with Charles, and then he gave me his first job, and in so doing he became my first – how can I say – real mentor. Charles and his wife Rachel took me under their wing. My learning curve was exponential.  And it must have been in one of those early years that we took a trip down to Saffron Walden and discovered (for me, for the first time) the Fry Art Gallery – which I have loved ever since.

The Fry holds the permanent collection of the ‘North West Essex Artists‘ – that extraordinary conglomeration of creative minds – from Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden to Kenneth Rowntree, Bernard Cheese, John Aldridge, Walter Hoyle and many others – who for decades found a life together centred around the tiny village of Great Bardfield – (where, as it happens, Rachel Morris had been brought up as a young girl – and hence, I suppose, the initial connection). In the mid 80s, a permanent gallery was established by a band of volunteers in a small, beautiful little art gallery in Castle Gardens in Saffron Walden; one of the most wonderful places I know.

I guess I’d already discovered Ravilious when I was quite a bit younger; these days, I can’t quite put my finger on when. I know that my grandparents were greatly into Paul and John Nash, and I’ve got memories of prints by those great painters from a very early age, in their modernist house on the Beaulieu River. But the gallery was a revelation. Collected here were paintings and drawings by people I knew and didn’t know, by artists I loved and had never heard of. Everything they have on show is amazing.

So it’s just a real pleasure to be able to write about a new exhibition opening in the little gallery next week (7th July to 1st September) – and which I will definitely be visiting this summer. I don’t make it out very often, these days (I know that sounds sad, but I’ve got to admit it’s true)… but this is one I am not going to miss (yes, I’m planning my trip, and it’s going to combine with the amazing show at Houghton).

Edwin Smith was an artist who has become better known for his photographs. If I think of many of the best books on architecture that I’ve got on the shelves down in Dorset, it would be true to say a lot of them have the evocative, black and white photographs taken by Smith that to my mind are some of the most beautiful examples ever made of the union between building, place and image. Smith was drawn not only to the naturally beautiful, but to the interesting; his pictures weave a remarkably consistent vision through an extraordinarily disparate landscape.

The exhibition will present Smith not just as a photographer, but as a painter and printmaker; as the gallery website describes: ‘he drew and painted every day and his prolific output encompassed not only oils and watercolours but also ink and crayon drawings, linocut prints and woodblock engravings’. I can’t wait to understand the relationships that are there to be discovered. In the meantime, here are a few of his photographs, and I hope you will see what I mean.


My heart aches looking at these photographs.  It’s true to say that a lot of the Fry painters and artists now feature on the walls of the shop. Bringing our own passions to new audiences has always been one of the great pleasures of running the shop for Bridie and me. It’s inevitable, of course, that that the moment of writing, the fine book of Smith’s work that we sell appears to be out of stock. Please never accuse us of being “ORGANISED RETAILERS”.  But there you go. We’ll get it as soon as we can, and please let Robin in the shop know if you’d like us to reserve one for you. In the meantime, I can’t wait to get to the Fry. And I hope you can’t either.


All images courtesy of Edwin Smith/RIBA Library Photographs Collection

10 comments on this post

Thanks for your interest and support. We have just finished hanging the show, which looks very well, and includes Edwin’s last photograph, discovered in his camera 17 years after his death.. Hope to see you soon at the Fry.

Deby (in Canada)says:

MTSS… it is a few years since I have been to Wells but for sure those amazing worn stairs are in the cathedral, leading to the chapter house… oh sigh, it is such a lovely town.


Where are those beautiful steps? If anybody is in Wells, would you peep inside the cathedral and have a look. I maybe wrong but……

I have loved that magical photo of the “sea of steps” since I was a kid, don’t ask me why it had such a profound effect. I never knew who the photographer was. I went to a Catholic grade school in a lovely old faux gothic building (now a historic landmark) so perhaps my youthful mind saw an affinity between those broad stone steps spilling down the photograph and the stairs in the school, which, though not stone, were quite broad. Anyway, that photo has always given me a thrill! They are all amazing. Thank you for sharing!

Cornelia harrietsays:

Dear ben, how interesting I love that pool of water.

That gate which opens into woodland opens into my secret childhood passions and all the misty clouds that billow around them still. My heart aches too, looking at those photos.


Edwin Smith is truly,madly,deeply wonderful.


Some years ago I had a conversation with an architect on the subject of the superiority of black and white photographs over colour film in the depiction of form and space and the evocation of atmosphere. In the images of Edwin Smith the case speaks for itself. I would be very interested to see more of his work in other media.

Michele from Bostonsays:

Ben, the pictures of Italy are sublime! Thank you.

Deby (in Canada)says:

Ben, you are poetic today… thank you for sharing those thoughts and beautiful images of Smith’s work- many of them do look more like paintings than photographs. I envy your coming weekend to Frye and Houghton… it will be such a treat it might be like a meal of only desserts!

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