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David Newell-Smith: photographer with focus on a long and creative life

From Fleet Street to Tadema Gallery – a ‘wine bar with jewels’ – which he ran with wife Sonya

20 September, 2017 — By Koos Couvée

THERE was nothing David Newell-Smith would rather do than take photographs.

Or so the photojournalist, who with wife Sonya ran Tadema Gallery, in Angel, for almost four decades following an illustrious career with The Observer, said in a 1967 interview.

“I don’t know why exactly, but to me it is completely satisfying in every way,” he told the newspaper’s picture editor Bryn Campbell.

David, who died in June aged 80, shared his passion with Sonya, also a newspaper photographer, before the inseparable couple put down their cameras to pursue another shared passion for 20th century art, artefacts and jewellery.

They opened the shop in Camden Passage in 1978, and went on to enjoy great success.

“We always had shared interests and were fascinated by whatever we were doing,” Sonya said, paying tribute to David this week.

“We always developed the same interests at the same time. I guess, we were very creative.”

“We did not focus on photography for a 30-year gap, during which we were concentrating on art and jewellery. We were very dedicated and hands-on. When we got involved in something, that was it.”

David and Sonya outside Tadema Gallery in Camden Passage

Born in Chislehurst, Kent, David was one of three sons of Frederick Newell-Smith, a Post Office engineer, and his wife Florence, a hairdresser in Bond Street.

After leaving school in 1955 he joined the RAF, where he trained as a photographer. On demob in 1960, he started freelancing for picture agencies and the Daily Sketch before receiving occasional jobs from The Observer, where he became full-time in 1964.

The couple met when Sonya (née Hirsch) was just 15. She recalls David wooing her by humorously quoting lines from Shakespeare and singing opera and Sinatra standards to her.

“He was very funny and kind,” Sonya, now 71, said. The couple, who got married when Sonya was 18, were inseparable until David’s death.

Their amazing teamwork found full expression in Tadema Gallery. The shop initially showcased 20th century art, furniture, sculpture, paintings, ceramics and glass.

David’s famous photo of model and actress Twiggy

But the couple ultimately specialised in jewellery and became widely known for their collection – and expert knowledge of – pieces from the art nouveau and art deco periods. Their range of international clients included museums, galleries and private collections.

But the shop – jokingly described as a “wine bar with jewels” by one friend – was also a hit with many loyal customers.

“At first we began selling 20th century decorative arts, then became ever more fascinated in abstract art and sculpture,” Sonya said. “This soon led to our interest in artist jewellery of the early 20th century, which took off spectacularly.

“Soon paintings on the wall were substituted by showcases full of jewellery. It seemed ridiculous, but in the end we became totally known for our jewellery.”

The gallery was among businesses hit by flooding last December when a water mains in Upper Street burst – an experience Sonya described as “a dreadful shock”.

“It was such a mess, so much archival material was lost, camera lenses, our books and photographs – our history was in the basement of the shop, not all of it at home,” she said.

“It was a financial hit but also very much an emotional one. David was incredibly distressed and I do think the stress shortened his life.”

In recent years, David and Sonya pursued their love of street photography in and around Brick Lane. “We spent most Sundays documenting the vibrant street scenes,” Sonya said.

She is aiming to produce a book of their best work and has also just completed Politicians, a book compilation of photographs of parliamentarians David took in the 1970s.

“As a tribute to David I intend continuing our mutual photographic endeavours to celebrate his life as a photographer, and go ahead with our original plan to create Tadema Gallery Online,” she said.

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