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Martin Charles

The importance of disseminating images, notably those from the RIBA Collections of drawings, archives, photographs and books and the opportunities afforded by digital technology led to the launch of the RIBApix website in 2005. As a fully searchable database of drawings, photographs and book illustrations which continues to grow by several thousand images a year, it has become a indispensable tool for students, architects and scholars.

This feature showcases one of the most important recent additions to the RIBA Robert Elwall Photographs Collection, the Martin Charles archive. Acquired shortly after his death in 2012 it contains over 25,000 images which are currently being digitised. The selection shown here represents some of the richness and range of this outstanding architectural photographer, in his documenting of both historical and contemporary architecture.

Martin Charles was essentially self-taught. His background was in film editing, working for the BBC in the early 1960s on their arts programme Monitor, before joining briefly Roy Boulting at Pinewood Studios as film editor. Rejecting the rigours and complexities of the film industry, he set up on his own as a freelance architectural photographer, where he found his vocation and he was published in journals such as Architectural Review and Architect’s Journal from the beginning.

His images resonate with the Pictorialist tradition in photography. Emerging at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was a reaction against the standardisation of photography and its mass commercialisation (particularly with the rise of roll film and the instamatic camera since the late 1880s). Architectural photographers sought to employ a number of techniques to demonstrate their artistry, creating painterly images, which evoked atmosphere, and a sense of place and time. It could also become a means of personal expression.

Red House, Bexleyheath and All Saint's Brockhampton

Charles’s photographs also show his editorial eye, as he draws the viewer into the frame of his picture. Philip Webb’s the Red House in Bexleyheath, London (above left) of 1860, was photographed in 1998 by Martin showing the house in late Autumn, with soft shadows and almost bare overhanging tree branches. All Saints Church, Brockhampton, Herefordshire (above right), 1902 by William Richard Lethaby taken in 1990 shows the church at the height of summer. Again the device of overhanging branches is used to frame the image, creating foreground shadows and sunlight, almost inviting us to walk across its lawn. At Broadleys, a house by Charles Voysey of 1900, near Lake Windermere (below left), we see it obliquely, framed by planting with the curved window bays receding into the distance. In contrast, Heathcote, Ilkley, West Yorkshire (below right), a large country house by Edwin Lutyens of 1906 is photographed straight-on, symmetrically framed between the large gate piers of the garden terrace.

Drawing the viewer into the frame, inviting us to participate in the subject, all part of the Pictorialist tradition – can be seen in photographers who influenced Charles, notably Alfred Edward Henson (1884-1972), who worked for Country Life magazine and the incomparable Edwin Smith (1912-1971) who documented a post-war world of unchanging landscapes, rural ways of life, churches, cottages, streets with and without people and grand decaying buildings. Eric de Maré (1910-2002), who is known for his pioneering studies of Britain’s industrial heritage, seen here in his famous image of St Edward’s Church at Brotherton, North Yorkshire dwarfed by the Ferrybridge B Power Station behind (below), was also much admired by Charles.

Alfred Henson’s photograph of 1925 of Oliver Hill’s house, Cock Rock, Croyde in Devon (below left) is as timeless as Charles’s image taken in 2003 of Edwin Lutyens, The Ferry Inn, Rosneath (below right) in Scotland. Both use strong lines and asymmetry to pull us into the picture.

In Edwin Smith, whom Martin Charles acknowledged as one of his influences, the sense of place is palpable, seen in his view of the Necropolis, Pompeii (below left) at sunset, with its ghostly statue. Charles’s photograph of the tomb of Philip James De Loutherbourg, St Nicholas Church, Chiswick, London, suggests a neglected suburban churchyard (below right).

This sense of atmosphere and place is key to Charles’s work. Robert Elwall in his acclaimed book on architectural photography, Building with Light, describes Martin Charles’s approach as one which, emphasizes place and the human dimension rather than architecture per se, ‘You don’t actually have to have people in the shot, but you do need to have the signs, the evidence of people’s work.’

He creates a feeling of presence, seen in this image of artists’ houses and studios by the River Thames at Hammersmith, with the empty garden seat (apart from the sleeping cat) and a door which opens onto the paved terrace (below).

Many photographs from the Pictorialist tradition are also suffused with atmosphere as seen in Eric De Mare’s brooding image of Seaton Delaval Hall, Northumberland (below left). Similarly, Charles’s Ducrow Mausoleum, at Kensal Green Cemetery, London (below right) conveys loss and mourning.

Both Smith and Charles were able to show the beauty in the everyday and ordinary life. Charles also used it in his images of contemporary architecture. In the 1970s and 1980s, he photographed many housing schemes for Camden Council, London, one of the most famous, being the Alexandra Road Estate by Neave Brown (completed 1979). Here the solitary black-suited figure in the foreground sums up this new urban environment of closely packed terraces and paved surfaces. A few years later, also in Camden we see the advent of post-Modernism in this modest block of flats on 24 Maygrove Road, Camden (below, top image), where again the solitary figure with his carrier bags captures our imagination. With Smith it is photograph of a Belfast street taken in the 1960s (below, bottom image) and the two women with their shopping bags.

Although these pictorial images are clearly associated with the use of black and white photography, Charles was one of the first architectural photographers to embrace fully the potential of colour, which could be just as atmospheric. This is particularly demonstrated in his photographs for the Masters of Building series created for the Architects’ Journal from the mid-1980s, seen here in the hallway of Victor Horta’s, Hotel Tassel, Brussels, after its restoration (below left) with its soft lighting. In contrast Richard Lethaby’s All Saints Church, Brockhampton (below right), with its cloudy skies and horse quietly cropping in the foreground, can be easily imagined in black and white.

Charles himself had a fondness for Arts and Craft architecture and he collaborated with authors such as Andrew Saint with his monograph on Richard Norman Shaw, Hilary Grainger on Sir Ernest George, Sheila Kirk on Philip Webb and Wendy Hitchmough’s book on Arts and Craft architecture. All of these photographs (many of them colour) showing the richness and texture of the buildings are now part of our collection at the RIBA.

View more of Martin Charles work on RIBApix.

Feature by Suzanne Waters

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De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea

Mendelsohn, Eric (1887-1953)

Housing, Queensway, Trumpington Road, Cambridge

Cambridge Design
NOTES: This accommodation was built for the Granta Housing Society.

Munstead Wood, Godalming

Lutyens, Sir Edwin Landseer (1869-1944)

Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland

Shaw, Richard Norman (1831-1912)
NOTES: Cragside was the enlargement of a shooting lodge of 1864 into a large country house. The alterations took place in stages over the period 1869-1885.

Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland: the dining room with its inglenook fireplace

Shaw, Richard Norman (1831-1912)
NOTES: Cragside was the enlargement of a shooting lodge of 1864 into a large country house. The alterations took place in stages over the period 1869-1885.

Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland: the inglenook fireplace in the dining room

Shaw, Richard Norman (1831-1912)
NOTES: Cragside was the enlargement of a shooting lodge of 1864 into a large country house. The alterations took place in stages over the period 1869-1885.

Cragside, Rothbury, Northumberland: the entrance front

Shaw, Richard Norman (1831-1912)
NOTES: Cragside was the enlargement of a shooting lodge of 1864 into a large country house. The alterations took place in stages over the period 1869-1885.

Medd House, Harmer Green, Hertfordshire: the main house from the east

Crowley, Mary (1907-2005)
NOTES: The house was designed by David Medd and Mary Crowley for their own use and included a workshop and garage attached to the house and accessible from there via a storage room.

Medd House, Harmer Green, Hertfordshire: bedroom cum study with built-in furniture

Crowley, Mary (1907-2005)
NOTES: The house was designed by David Medd and Mary Crowley for their own use and included a workshop and garage attached to the house and accessible from there via a storage room.

Woolpits, Ewhurst, Surrey: an ancillary building

Ernest George & Peto
NOTES: Woolpits was built for the pottery manufacturer Sir Henry Doulton and much use was made of terrracotta throughout the house, especially on the chimneys and internally for decoration.

Cottages, Buscot, Berkshire

Ernest George & Peto
NOTES: Buscot was a model village designed by George & Peto for the owner of Buscot Park, Alexander Henderson, a financier, engineer and amateur painter, who was created Baron Faringdon in 1916. The village included cottages, a forge and a community room (parish hall). The village was laid out between 1892-1897.

Branch Hill Estate, Hampstead, London

Benson, Gordon (1944-)
NOTES: See RIBA103361for a black and white version of this image.

Branch Hill Estate, Hampstead, London: the dining area in one of the flats

Benson, Gordon (1944-)
NOTES: See RIBA103363 for a black and white version of this image.

Finsbury Health Centre, Pine Street, Islington, London: the main entrance

Lubetkin & Tecton
NOTES: The Finsbury Health Centre was an attempt to rationalize the borough's health provision by providing on a single site a wide range of facilities, the needs of some of which could alter radically with time. Tecton's masterly solution to the complex circulation patterns such a multi-functional building entailed was hailed by architectural and medical critics alike as a prototype and a radical break with traditional health provision. The building is Grade I listed and was partly restored in the 1990s.

Alison and Peter Smithson in their garden at Chelsea, London

Smithson, Alison (1928-1993)
NOTES: These photographs were taken during their work at Bath University, where they added a new arts building. The significance of the ancient rug, which has been patched and mended over time, refers to their approach towards adding and adapation of the existing fabric at Bath.

Oaklands infants school, Barnet, London: the assembly hall with its mural

Architects Co-Partnership
NOTES: The mural was painted by Fred Millett.

Melsetter House, Hoy, Orkney: detail of chapel window, showing St Colm

Lethaby, William Richard (1857-1931)
NOTES: See RIBA145883 for a black and white version of this image.

Melsetter House, Hoy, Orkney, seen from nearby hill

Lethaby, William Richard (1857-1931)
NOTES: See RIBA145930 for a black and white version and RIBA145943 for a colour negative of this image.

Melsetter House, Hoy, Orkney: the entrance porch of the Factor's House

Lethaby, William Richard (1857-1931)
NOTES: See RIBA145912 for a black and white version and RIBA145915 for a colour negative version of this image.

Flats in Holford Square, Finsbury, London: the entrance hall of Bevin Court, looking outwards

Skinner Bailey & Lubetkin
NOTES: Tecton were responsible for the masterplan, which was given Town Planning consent in 1948, and Skinner, Bailey & Lubetkin were responsible for its development and execution.

Walter's Way, Honor Oak Park, Lewisham, London

Segal, Walter (1907-1985)
NOTES: Walter Segal oversaw with Jon Broome the construction of 13 double storey self-build houses in Walter's Way, Honor Oak Park, Lewisham between 1985-1987. See RIBA131677 for a black and white version of this image.

Albert Dock, Liverpool

Hartley, Jesse (1780-1860)

Bredon Barn, Bredon, Worcestershire: the restored barn from the south-east

Charles, Frederick. W. B. (1912-2002)
NOTES: The barn at Bredon is an aisled structure of nine bays, with Cotswold stone walls and a stone slate roof. It is 134 feet long and has an equal width and height of 44 feet, and a loft approached by an external stair. It was distinguished from other great medieval barns in that it was inhabited by the Reeve (the estate overseer) and his family, so contained a fireplace, a stone lavatory and garderobe. It was badly damaged by fire in 1980. It was completely restored in 1983 by Frederick Charles, father of the photographer Martin Charles. See RIBA117865 for a black and white version of this image.

Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, South Kensington, London: the central hall from the flying staircase

Waterhouse, Alfred (1830-1905)
NOTES: See RIBA155667 for a colour version of this image.

Daily Express, Great Ancoats Street, Manchester: the original 1937 building

Williams, Sir Evan Owen (1890-1969)
NOTES: The Manchester Daily Express building was like it's Fleet Street counterpart designed by the same architect Sir Owen Williams in a similiar style. Since then it has been extended; in 1960 also by Williams, with the latest addition in 1979, by architects Rosenberg & Gentle. See RIBA159932 for a colour version of this image.

Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, Hong Kong

Foster Associates
NOTES: See RIBA157319 for a colour version of this image.

Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, Hong Kong, with the Courts of Justice and Cenotaph in the foreground

Foster Associates
NOTES: The Courts of Justice or Legislative Council building was designed by Aston Webb and Ingress Bell in 1912. The Cenotaph which is an exact copy of the one in London by Sir Edwin Lutyens dates from 1923. See RIBA157362 for a colour version of this image.

Lloyds, City of London, seen from the south

Richard Rogers Partnership
NOTES: See RIBA130419 for a black and white version of this image.

Ancient High House, Stafford

F. W. B. & Mary Charles
NOTES: The Ancient High House in Stafford, was a grand timber-framed town house built for the Dorrington family in 1595. The insertion of three shops on the ground floor in 1885 damaged the sandstone plinth and undermined the structure and affected the visual coherence of the whole design. The whole building was restored in four phases from 1976-1986. See RIBA130589 for a black and white version of this image.