Collage and Cathedrals: The Many Styles of John Piper
John Piper entered art school late, delayed by his father’s ambition for him to join the family firm of solicitors. On his father’s death in 1927, Piper enrolled in the Richmond College of Art and, one year later, the Royal College of Art. The career which followed would see him span style and media to create a body of work that is startling in its variety.
Piper, as an artist, resists definition. In many respects, he was an antiquarian, personally committed to his interest in medieval history and to a Romantic portrayal of the landscapes of coastal Britain. However, he was also, and without compromise, a major advocate for abstract art in Britain in the 1930s and played a role in the development of the distinctively British flavour of modernism. Although Piper later disassociated himself from the movement, his artistic style remained in a state of conscious evolution. Piper’s work would undergo yet another development when, during the Second World War, he became an official War Artist and accepted government commissions to paint military headquarters, historic buildings and ruined churches.
The John Piper exhibition at the Mead Gallery in Coventry is offering the chance to experience this diverse body of work in a small, carefully curated collection of paintings, collages, drawings, textiles, sketchbooks and photographs. A walk through the exhibition is to take an almost chronological journey through some of the best and most varied examples of Piper’s life in art.
And yet, importantly, Piper’s diversity on show at the Mead Gallery speaks of repertoire rather than of inconsistency. Piper sought to reconcile multiple artistic influences in single images. This can be admired in his coastal paintings of 1933 which display a subtle convergence of modernist tendencies with Piper’s identity as a British landscape artist. In these images, paint, ink and collaged papers are combined to affectionately depict various British coastlines known to the artist. In these collages, Piper treads a fine line between modernist feeling and a representational style of painting to create deeply personal, idiosyncratic landscapes; the familiar public spaces of sand and sea seen through the artist’s unique vision.
Piper’s unwavering dedication to themes of space and geography is also evident in the exhibition. In the first image of the collection – one of the earliest of his career – a row of houses is captured in a self-consciously naïve style in vivid reds. This painting is a compelling introduction to Piper’s interest in place and architecture, an interest which would recur consistently throughout his career.
However, Piper’s interest in landscape extended far beyond the objective aims of a geographer to map the physical structures of a space. Rather, Piper worked to capture the mood and atmosphere of the places he depicted and, in doing so, reflected his personal sensitivity and fondness for them.
Perhaps the most powerful examples of this can be seen in his famous pictures of Coventry Cathedral the morning after its destruction by German bombers. Piper’s lifelong practice of imbuing landscapes with emotional and personal atmosphere is applied again in these paintings. Here, Piper’s use of colour, light and contrast lends the sketches an emotional, even spiritual, weight that precedes their specific military and political contexts; Piper was a skilled archivist of both history and emotion.
Although Piper’s work fell out of favour with the artistic tastes of the late 1950s, he did not stop working and began to receive high-profile commissions and designed stained glass for churches in Liverpool and the reconstructed Coventry Cathedral. Nor did he ever abandon his dedication to his primary subject, British landscape, which he continued to paint for the remainder of his career.
The John Piper exhibition, organised in association with Tate Liverpool, is a small but comprehensive showcase of this dedication and affirms Piper’s identity as a multi-disciplinary artist with a strong sense of identity and a historically resonant body of work. Yet there is also a sense of play to be found in this collection, because in his determination to create records of buildings and landscapes that were simultaneously public and intimate, Piper allowed himself great freedom.
The lively, spontaneous collages of his later post-abstraction career appear midway through the exhibition and are wonderful examples of this attitude. These collages were created outdoors and on the spot, often in poor weather conditions which can be seen in his use of grey blues and lines of chaotic movement. They are looser, freer than his first collages and openly flaunt the expressive influence of Picasso. More experimental than his earlier modernist phase, more personal than his later commissions as a War Artist, these collages are a testament to the pleasure and plurality that he caracterises his art. They are, in themselves, reason enough to visit this exhibition and to revisit Piper’s work.
The John Piper exhibition shows until 21 June and is organised by the Mead Gallery in association with Tate Liverpool.
Cover image: Abstract I, 1935, Tate Liverpool / © Tate