Robert Elwall: Acclaimed historian of architectural photography


Jay Merrick
Wednesday 14 March 2012 01:00 GMT

Architecture's relationship with photography has been intimate and dynamic, and images of great buildings have profoundly influenced the creative processes of successive generations of architects. In Britain, nobody played a more important role in illuminating and preserving this historic panorama than Robert Elwall, photographs curator at the Royal Institute of British Architects, who has died at the age of 59.

Equipped with a history MA from Trinity College, Oxford, Elwall joined the RIBA as a librarian in 1976, at that time, the RIBA possessed a desultory, unorganised collection of some 5,000 architectural photographs; in those days, architectural drawings and models were considered historically valuable; photographs much less so.

Elwall immediately realised that there was a huge void in the understanding of architecture through photography. By 1980, he had established the RIBA's photographic collection as a strategic necessity and, three decades later, had amassed 1.5 million images, many digitised, in the biggest and most important architectural resource of its kind in the world.

His ability to identify, and capture, important photographs will remain legendary. For example, he revived the reputations of John Donat, and Edwin Smith, Britain's greatest mid-20th century photographer of buildings and landscapes. Robert was often a photographic saviour, too: when he heard that the future security of the photographic collections of the Architects' Journal and Architectural Review were in doubt, he found a home for them at the RIBA, personally collecting boxes containing 500,000 images.

Elwall had a strong desire to disseminate historic architectural photography to the wider public, not least in giving many talks, and in books written in an informative but very readable style. He produced a dozen or so monographs, and his 2004 book, Building With Light: the International History of Architectural Photography, was nominated for the 2005 Bruno Zevi Book Award. It was also listed as one of Books of the Decade by the wannabe generation's apolitical style totem, Wallpaper magazine; Elwall, of left-leaning political persuasion, must have enjoyed that irony.

His exhibitions, organised jointly with his team, were historically valuable. But they also sought to expose humane and civil facets of architecture, place, and memory. A perfect example was his recent Putting On The Glitz show at the RIBA, a brilliantly selected range of Art Deco imagery – historically astute yet also witty in revealing both the beauties and horrors of that style, and its social implications.

In person, Elwall appeared to be rather quizzical. Actually, he was wryly amusing and loved discussing ideas that broached several territories at once. Professionally, he was extraordinarily helpful and patient with those who sought information. Dr Irena Murray, director of the RIBA library, recently characterised him very well: "Robert was a shy person, but nobody at the RIBA was more passionate, and rigorous, about their subject matter."

Elwall, an ex-Portsmouth Grammar School boy, carried an aura that was of the ivory tower and yet also redolent of the right-on, agitprop 1970s. One of his favourite phrases was "unvarnished opinions" – as unvarnished as the jazz, and rock music of the 1960s and '70s, that he enjoyed; or the landscapes he loved to walk; or the evenings of conversation involving, preferentially, Montepulciano wine. His studiedly relaxed, slow-moving manner concealed the fact that as a youngster he had been an outstanding tennis player.

Having developed pancreatic cancer little more than a year ago, he continued working until a few days before his death, and was still at his desk a fortnight ago. Robert Elwall's bedside table at the Hampstead hospice was covered with books, notes, and an article he was finishing for the RIBA Journal – the last ideas in his significant contribution to the history of architecture, and to British cultural memory.

Robert Frederick Elwall, photographic curator and historian: born Portsmouth 14 January 1953; married Cathy Dembsky; died Hampstead, London 7 March 2012.

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