Now that the great design surveys regularly mounted by the V&A have come up to date, what will it seek to beguile us with next? These exhibitions have always been of interest, at least in parts, and often infuriating, a combination that has helped to ensure their success. The wide range of paintings and objects on display has also given them the status of offering ‘something for everyone’, rather like a vastly superior village bazaar. The current show is no exception. It begins very well, and then conks out repeatedly like an untuned engine. Ah well, who said the course of true progress (and innovation — don’t forget innovation) runs smooth?
The exhibition (sponsored by Ernst & Young) opens with a small section of John Piper’s huge 1951 Festival of Britain mural ‘The Englishman’s Home’, which has lately been on view in its entirety at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank. The whole thing is sadly rather dull and overblown, so a section of it looks much better here, and gives a foretaste of the new Romanticism that pervades this first area of the display. To the right is a model of the famous and very beautiful stained-glass Baptistery Window at Coventry Cathedral designed by Piper with Patrick Reyntiens. Next to that is a Piper painting of what was left of the bombed interior of the old Coventry Cathedral. Opposite is the first cartoon for Graham Sutherland’s controversial tapestry for Coventry, looking rather better than the finished thing. In a wall cabinet nearby is a trial section of tapestry, showing a disgruntled Eagle of St John, and in front of it Geoffrey Clarke’s exquisite cast silver altar cross.
This initial emphasis on neoromantic art is backed up with Coronation or Festival exhibits by Edward Bawden, Kenneth Rowntree and Abram Games, and Lynn Chadwick’s impressive maquette in cast copper, brass and iron for ‘Three Hollow Men’. Another good display juxtaposes William Gear’s vibrant organic abstract ‘Autumn Landscape’ with Reg Butler’s wiry reclining figure (so different from Henry Moore). Round the corner is a 1959 model of the beloved Routemaster bus and various examples of the changing fashions in transport signage. Moore, of course, is not to be left out, and we are shown the rather weathered ‘Family Group’ from Harlow. Exhibits leaning at an angle — as if propped on giant easels — are an increasingly noticeable feature of this part of the installation.
The show now moves away from fine art and gets into its stride with architecture (plans for towers and new towns) and classic works from the celebrated design team Lucienne and Robin Day. (Note the room divider enlivened with a Geoffrey Clarke engraving printed on plastic.) Monica Poole’s impressive wood engraving seems a neoromantic survival in this bustling new world, where Ralph Koltai’s model for his production of As You Like It suspends Perspex poles to indicate the Forest of Arden. Conran jostles with the headgear for Peter Shaffer’s play Equus and Tom Phillips’s National Theatre poster. Enid Seeney’s black-and-white ‘Homemaker’ tableware contrasts with the colourful romantic escapism of Hugh Casson’s ‘Cannes’ designs, in turn picking up on John Minton’s lush illustrations for Elizabeth David’s cookbooks, and Keith Vaughan’s ‘Fisherman’ furnishing fabric for Edinburgh Weavers.
The second section of the show begins with Art School, that melting pot of Sixties creative talent that gave rise not just to radical painting and sculpture but also to so much of the best music of the period, from The Who to The Bonzos. Here a large and somewhat Bacon-esque painting by Frank Bowling called ‘Mirror’ (1964–6) makes an unexpectedly powerful impact, backed up by the familiar names of the decade: Paolozzi, Richard Hamilton (his best period), Allen Jones, Hockney (one of his best periods) and Zandra Rhodes with a stupendously jazzy fabric design. Here, too, are inventive pots by Liz Fritsch, a cream Mini, Mary Quant ankle boots and mini dress, the iconic (if I’m permitted to use that word) faces of the period: Julie Christie, Twiggy and the Shrimp, an excerpt from the film Blow-Up, Bowie’s stage costume for Ziggy Stardust and Marc Bolan’s gold glitter suit.
Enough! I hear the sensitive reader cry, and indeed this would be enough for most visitors to take in, but the V&A has not finished with us yet, and is determined to trace the ensuing downward spiral. Obviously the exhibition designers have had great fun arranging all this stuff, but what is the weary spectator to do, other than trudge on, avoiding wherever possible such ghastliness as Damien Hirst’s ‘Pharmacy’? There are many good things, of course, such as Paul Smith’s ‘Bird Jacket’, and in the final section we do have Concorde and a silver E-type Jaguar, as well as the Delta phone and the Mark II stacking polypropylene chair. Also Dyson’s transparent vacuum cleaner and the ‘Topper’ sailing dinghy, but there’s an awful lot of silliness and a rebarbative room of competing screens entitled ‘Hardware to Software’ — though most people have enough of this at home. A hefty 400-page catalogue (£40 in hardback) is a must for the coffee table (providing its structure is sufficiently robust), but no substitute for browsing enjoyably in this crowded but well-designed and clearly laid-out exhibition.
Interest in John Piper continues to burgeon. There are currently three museum-type exhibitions devoted to his work, beginning with a Romantic topographical extravaganza at the National Museum Cardiff (until 13 May) entitled John Piper: The Mountains of Wales. This dramatic and moving selection of some of his best landscape paintings and drawings is accompanied by an excellent catalogue (£9.99). Meanwhile, at the River and Rowing Museum at Henley (until 8 October) is John Piper — the Gyselynck Collection. More than 30 works celebrate the artist, who lived near Henley for most of his working life, including an early abstract masterpiece called ‘Composition’ (1936) that alone would justify a visit to the exhibition.
Further to Kate Chisholm’s recent Spectator article on the role of the cathedral in the modern world (Arts, 31 March), these great buildings are of course superb art galleries. Besides the permanent treasures they invariably house, temporary exhibitions frequently enliven their hallowed halls. Currently at Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire (until 10 June), an exhibition entitled John Piper and the Church comprises paintings, drawings and ecclesiastical vestments, together with stained glass and tapestry designs.
More than 50 works explore this artist’s relationship with his religion and with the established Church. Among the essays in the accompanying catalogue is an interesting piece by the Rt Revd Dr David Stancliffe, former Bishop of Salisbury, who points out that, though Graham Sutherland was drawn to the Crucifixion, Piper was much more interested in the Incarnation. And it is this optimism that so often shines through the surrounding darkness of his imagery, and perhaps helps to account for his continuing and increasing popularity.