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Fiery genius

In July 1967, a young artist named John Nankivell, living in Wantage, plucked up the courage to knock on John Betjeman’s front door, in the same town, to show the poet (whom he had never met) some of his architectural drawings.

16 September 2009

12:00 AM

16 September 2009

12:00 AM

John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art Frances Spalding

Oxford University Press, pp.598, 25

In July 1967, a young artist named John Nankivell, living in Wantage, plucked up the courage to knock on John Betjeman’s front door, in the same town, to show the poet (whom he had never met) some of his architectural drawings.

In July 1967, a young artist named John Nankivell, living in Wantage, plucked up the courage to knock on John Betjeman’s front door, in the same town, to show the poet (whom he had never met) some of his architectural drawings. Betjeman was impressed by the work. Though the buildings were depicted with careful detail, there was something about the perspective — a hardly perceptible distortion — that saved the drawings from being drily academic; it was as if the buildings were reflected in a lake with a slight shiver across its surface. The two men became friends. Betjeman bought Nankivell’s drawings and arranged for an exhibition of them to be held.

Five months after that first meeting, Betjeman wrote to Nankivell:

Penelope [the poet’s wife] said to me when we were motoring in Leamington last Sunday, about a sunlit house we passed, ‘It looks just like a John Nankivell’ & so it did. That is what being an artist is.

Presumably what Betjeman meant was that a good artist’s work is instantly recognisable as his or hers — sui generis. A pedant might object that just the same could be said of a really bad artist — as it were, ‘sui generis, thank goodness’. But we know what he was getting at. Good artists, great artists have their own distinctive, unmistakable dye. And John Piper (1903-1992) — perhaps half-way between good and great — was of their number. In the course of this magnificent book by Frances Spalding, we encounter many descriptions of his style when he was in his prime, some of them by leading authors and critics. They vary; but they are all of the same ‘family’. His friend and patron, Osbert Sitwell, caught the essence of his art most pithily in the phrase ‘his sombre yet fiery genius’: all those livid churches, castles, cathedrals, ruins and bombsites against stormy skies. (During the second world war, Piper was commissioned to make paintings of Windsor Castle. Spalding relays for us George VI’s wry remark, ‘You seem to have very bad luck with your weather, Mr Piper’; but I seem to remember that Piper told me a slightly funnier — possibly embellished — version of the King’s comment: ‘Sorry. Piper, it looks as if we’re in for a fine day.’)

So we all know what to expect from a Piper painting: a melodramatic, representational composition of this kind, with the use of what Spalding nicely calls ‘refulgent colour’.

However, in his youth Piper painted in a totally different style. He fell hook, line and sinker for abstract expressionism. His abstract pictures of this period — well represented in Spalding’s book — are unexceptionable and unexceptional. They are contained, controlled — one might almost say ‘prim’. He was a sort of pallid Picasso, or Braque-and-water (brackish water, if you like). For a time, he subscribed to all the apparatus of modernism — its ditching of the ‘anecdotal’ and ‘illusionist’; its blaring manifestos and fierce anathemas. But then he rebelled — to the fury of such purists as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who saw him as a traitor.

He became increasingly impatient with an art that did not deal in the beautiful specifics of nature. He saw that abstraction was all very well as experiment, as practice in learning which colours sat next to each other best — rather as the scales and broken chords of a pianist would enable that musician to make a better fist of a sonata; but that they were no more satisfactory as a work of art than scales were as a piece of music.

Piper came to feel that abstraction belonged in lino, wallpaper and interior decoration, not in the panoply of a gilt frame in a gallery. (What was art deco but domesticated cubism?) The rise of modernism seemed to have an unfortunate affinity with the rise of totalitarianism in Europe: both were in quest of an ‘absolute’. Piper thought that modernism had led art into a cul-de-sac, agreeing with the art critic S. J. Woods that ‘art has chased out life and now life must come back if art is to remain’. He also noted what Paul Nash wrote in 1935:

I discern among natural phenomena a thousand forms which might, with advantage, be dissolved in the crucible of abstract transfiguration; but the hard cold stone, the rasping grass, the intricate architecture of trees and waves, or the brittle sculpture of a dead leaf — I cannot translate altogether beyond their own image, without suffering in spirit.

In 1943 Piper wrote to Nash:

After an abstract period what a release one feels! The avenue at Stadhampton or the watercress beds at Ewelme are seen with such new intensity! But if one abstracts them finally, so that the posts are areas of colour, and the waterfall into the watercress bed becomes like a Ben [Nicholson] relief, then the result can be hung perhaps in Cork Street, but not hung against one’s heart.

As Spalding makes clear, Piper never wholly turned his back on modernism; he always kept a small Ben Nicholson relief on top of his piano. One clings with affection to what has meant a lot to one in one’s youth; he had learnt much from his abstract experiments; and he was to deploy abstraction again in his later stained glass work. But he found a way back into representation through the ‘picturesque’ that he enjoyed in old aquatints, and also through the influence of the English romantic school which came into particular favour in the 1940s — Turner, Blake, Cotman and Samuel Palmer. From an early age he also drew inspiration from medieval stained glass — the juxtaposition of often primary colours without recourse to abstraction.

John Piper was born in the same year as Evelyn Waugh, A. L. Rowse and Graham Sutherland, who was at school with him at Epsom College. The family was upwardly mobile. Piper’s great-grandfather had been a tanner and skin-dresser; his grandfather, a bootmaker; but his father was a solicitor, who wanted John to go into the family business. For a short time, he did; but the death of his father in 1927 freed him to study art, at the Richmond College of Art, then the Royal College of Art. After an unsatisfactory marriage to a fellow student, Eileen Holding, he met the brilliant Oxford graduate Myfanwy Evans — later the muse of Betjeman poems — whom he married after obtaining a divorce. She edited a modernist magazine called Axis, for which he designed a cover. In 1934 they moved into Fawley Bottom Farmhouse, near Henley-on-Thames — always referred to in letters between Piper and his best friend, John Betjeman, as ‘Fawley Bum’. I stayed there with them in the 1970s, when doing research for my biography of Betjeman.

Of all the friends of the poet whom I tracked down and tape-recorded, John Piper was the most delightful: charming, modest, humorous. Myfanwy was more of an acquired taste. I thought she looked like a witch; I was rather pleased to find, in this book, that David Hemmings (who played Miles in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, for which Myfanwy wrote the libretto), also thought she had ‘an alarming, witch-like presence and would have looked quite at home in the Scottish play, crouched over a cauldron’. In a letter of 1949 to Nancy Mitford (tactfully not quoted by Spalding), Evelyn Waugh described Myfanwy as ‘a mixture of Edith Sitwell & Leslie Jowitt [the Lord Chancellor’s wife], very stout & almost bald’.

When I first asked John Piper to talk to me about Betjeman, he replied: ‘Fact is, we are not on speakers at the moment.’ Naturally, when I stayed at Fawley Bum,
I wanted to ask him why: I had heard on the grapevine that it was because the Pipers’ artist son, Edward, had made designs for the Shell Guides that Betjeman and Piper co-edited; that Betjeman hated the designs, and that John stuck up for his son. I did ask the question; but before John could get in a word (he seemed perfectly ready to explain), Myfanwy rushed forward, her straggly hair streaming, and shouted ‘No! No! Don’t talk about that!’ So I have to concede I have a slight prejudice against her, though I acknowledge the blazing talent of her art criticism and her several libretti for Britten. (One exception: in Owen Wingrave, she perpetrated the most bathetic line in the operatic canon: ‘I must go down to the post office.’)

It makes every kind of sense to write about both John and Myfanwy in this biography; but John is its star. Spalding comprehensively (but never tediously) covers his work in all its staggering versatility: oil paintings; watercolours; prints; stained glass; ceramics; topography; photography; stage sets; fabrics; tapestries; book jackets; even fireworks. A nit-picker could find a few tiny gaps: for example, there is no mention of the ‘Realism and Surrealism’ exhibition of 1938 at the Guildhall, Gloucester, in which Piper works were shown beside Picassos, Kandinskys and Dalis; and the ceramic work is slightly skimped. But a fair verdict would be: ‘Just occasionally, one comes across a book of which one can say, “This could not have been done better.” Spalding’s book is in that rare class.’ The Oxford University Press is to be congratulated on publishing this work on the scale the Pipers deserved. It must be a strong contender for the Whitbread biography prize, although one cannot think of more formidable competition than Selina Hastings’ The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham or John Carey’s William Golding.

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