At the beginning of Richard Ingrams’s book on John Piper (1903–92), he quotes the artist as saying: ‘The basic and unexplainable thing about my paintings is a feeling for places.
At the beginning of Richard Ingrams’s book on John Piper (1903–92), he quotes the artist as saying: ‘The basic and unexplainable thing about my paintings is a feeling for places. Not for “travel”, but just for going somewhere — anywhere, really — and trying to see what hasn’t been seen before.’ It’s a good description of what makes Piper’s best work special and memorable, that feeling not just for identifying the spirit of a place, but for depicting it as never before.
In this way, Piper at his most focused and intense (essentially at his most personal) transcends the topographical and moves into that higher realm of inquiry and statement we call art. A new exhibition, currently spread over three venues, restricts itself intelligently to the work Piper made of two counties — Kent and Sussex. The very narrowness of its remit results paradoxically in richness: this is one of the most instructive and enjoyable Piper exhibitions I’ve seen.
The unassuming concrete bunker that is Mascalls Gallery has been packed with work which fires up the walls. Here is the heart of the exhibition and, if you have time and energy to visit only one of the venues, this is the place to come; Tunbridge Wells Museum and Scotney Castle form interesting adjuncts, but the meat is at Mascalls. The exhibition’s curator, Nathaniel Hepburn, has worked hard to track down rarely seen Pipers, and roughly 80 per cent of the work comes from private collections. This research has paid off triumphantly, and Hepburn has located sufficient material to hang the display thematically and chronologically, from 1930 to 1984, grouping works in such a way as to show them at their best and to tell us much through comparison and contrast.
I am especially partial to Piper’s early experiments with collaged landscape, many of them made in front of the subject. Here, for instance, are two beautiful ink-and-collage evocations of Littlestone-on-Sea from 1936 hung next to a fabulous little abstract of 1935 from Pallant House. We are thus shown how Piper’s new interests in the abstraction of the international avant-garde meshed with his established passion for places to produce designs of simple and compelling directness.
Another lovely group features Newhaven and the lighthouse at Dungeness; compare these with the serene and rhythmical abstract ‘Sea Buildings’ (1938). Then, around 1939, the focus shifts closer to one of Piper’s other great passions: architecture. The little-known sequence of Brighton aquatints belongs here, and the resonantly mellow interior ‘Hamsey Church’. Another passion becomes visible now in ‘Dead Resort, Kemptown’ — theatre design. This oil takes the planar abstraction of modernism and uses it like stage flats.
Back, then, to Dungeness, and a splendid grouping of three renditions of the beach, two oils and a gouache, all done in 1947, and hung closely to illustrate the way Piper approached the same subject in different sizes and media. The mark-making is as blustery as the coastal weather can be, liquid and gestural but also precisely evocative. Another interesting group deals with Clymping beach in 1953: a lithograph, a gouache and a large oil all take as their central motif a giant’s causeway of concrete stepping stones, rather like Paul Nash’s favourite subject of the sea wall at Dymchurch, just along the coast.
The last section is perhaps the least inspiring, which reinforces the common belief that Piper’s work declined substantially in later years. I’m not entirely convinced by this, being an admirer (for instance) of his flower paintings done in the late-1980s, though none of these could be included here as they weren’t painted in either Kent or Sussex, but at his home in Buckinghamshire. The regional selectivity is thus at times a drawback of this otherwise admirable exhibition, though even in the last section there are good things — particularly an ink-and-watercolour study of Dungeness (1978), pale, speckled and spacious like a late Burra.
At Scotney Castle, where Piper and his wife Myfanwy were frequent visitors, the personal connection is nicely celebrated through a display of letters, photographs, sketchbooks and portraits of the Castle itself. If you’re driving round the area, it’s worth dropping in at St Mary’s, Lamberhust, where Piper designed a stained-glass window on the theme of the Annunciation to the Shepherds. And at Tunbridge Wells his designs for the Chichester Cathedral tapestry and for such stage productions as The Rape of Lucretia, Albert Herring and Don Giovanni all illuminate another side to his interests.
A handsome and compact hardback catalogue has been published to accompany the exhibition (price £13.50). Appropriately, the show will tour to Sussex, to the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne (2 July to 25 September), where the work of the three venues will be reunited. Piper is definitely the flavour of the moment, with Creative Partnerships, an exhibition of his collaborative work, including more of his designs for the stage as well as for ceramics, stained glass, tapestry, textiles and mosaics, on show at Hereford Museum & Art Gallery (25 June to 31 August). As we are offered a wider perspective on his energetic and multifarious career, Piper emerges as a very considerable figure indeed.
Meanwhile, back in London, two exhibitions celebrate a very different creative partnership, between the rambunctious avant-garde painter Roger Hilton (1911–75) and his long-suffering wife Rose. In his centenary year, Roger Hilton is at last beginning to receive the kind of attention his remarkable work deserves, particularly in view of the encomia lavished on his more lightweight contemporaries. There is currently a museum show of his Cornish years at the Newlyn Art Gallery (until 2 May), while at Jonathan Clark & Co (18 Park Walk, SW10, until 16 April) is a selling exhibition devoted to the work of his last decade, enticingly titled Going Out with a Bang. Looking at these paintings and drawings from the 1960s and 70s, still vividly fresh and scabrously witty, the antics of our younger artists pale into insignificance. Rose Hilton’s painting career was put on hold during her husband’s lifetime, and so her story has been one of late flowering. She just gets better and better, as her current 80th birthday exhibition at Messum’s (8 Cork Street, W1, until 16 April) testifies. All are recommended.