It was Rena Gardiner who guided me onto the trail of John and Myfanwy Piper, artists of whom I knew next to nothing beyond their names, but whose biography by Frances Spalding was here somewhere. Frances Spalding wrote an excellent biography of Gwen Raverat which I had read and enjoyed some years ago, so I was hopeful that the Pipers would get the same accessible and readable treatment.
Howard Jacobson would have kittens at my use of the word 'readable'; he deplores its use suggesting it should be made a capital offence with reference to the world of books...but...well, I was deeply immersed for several weeks in 600 pages of the new-to-me lives of the Pipers, emerging with a list of even more reading and places to visit.
Born in 1903 and having suffered the loss of a brother in the Great War, John Piper felt obliged to be articled to his father's law firm rather than pursuing his chosen career as an artist. It was only the death of his father in 1927 that released him from the torture and enabled him to enroll at the Royal College of Art in 1928.
What an an exciting time to be there, the art world on the cusp of change thanks to Gauguin, Kadinsky, Matisse et al, with Picasso in the ascendant too, and all largely unaccepted by the establishment, but John Piper was also there as a critic and had this to say in defence of their work..
'There is no explanation of a work of art of any period...the most a critic can do is to describe the technical method of an artist or write about his own reactions to a work of art, which may be unrepresentative...'
With an early and failed marriage behind him it was John Piper's relationship with, and eventual marriage to Myfanwy Evans in the mid-1930s that would create an artistic partnership that was to endure for the rest of their lives. Setting up home at Fawley Bottom at the foot of the Chilterns, the couple recognised the importance of the moment in the art world and proceeded to embrace and nurture it.
Whilst Myfanwy wrote and edited various art periodicals and established a warm and welcoming home, and this despite the most spartan conditions (for many years no electricity or running water), John, having invested much time and effort in the creation of abstract art, shifted his focus to more recognisable landscapes, architecture and topography as the determining ingredients of his career. I warmed to John Piper's vision of the countryside as a palimpsest, a document that had been erased and overwritten many times over, a concept he used to imagine and celebrate what lay beneath, so it is no surprise that John Betjeman was among his closest friends and artistic collaborators.
The shift from purely abstract art was a canny one that seemed to leave a few artistic feuds in its wake (did Ben Nicolson and Barbara Hepworth ever forgive him for the desertion?) but John Piper's approach made great sense as I read and absorbed this book...a movement should only be truly recognisable and discovered afterwards for fear of confining and killing the artists in its midst. It was all about freedom of expression and refusing to be railroaded into any particular style.
It would seem to be thanks to this creative decision that we now have the legacy that we do of John Piper's work, because as well as becoming one of the leading war artists at the outbreak of the Second World War, he was also instrumental in the artistic reconstruction afterwards, as well as writing and illustrating the series of Shell Guides to many English counties. Designed to be guides for the ordinary people it had been a time when celebrating England and Englishness peaked, the threat of war somehow focusing the artistic mind on what could be lost, whilst acknowledging the power of the past to return and inform the present.
Myfanwy meanwhile excelled as a librettist working in close collaboration with Sir Benjamin Britten on most of his operas whilst continuing to run the family home and raise children with what was described as 'a high degree of organisational mayhem.'
I hope I'm not making this book sound as dry as dust because trust me it isn't. Frances Spalding does a superb job of making interesting material utterly fascinating, weaving in all the facets of John and Myfanwy's outlook and principles throughout their lives. Understanding their place in that moment in time proved to be a revelation explaining much that was on the edge of my ken but not quite fully fledged. I found myself nodding in agreement with so much, notably the idea that an ancient building should not be too tidy and discovering beauty in 'decrepit glory.' Pleasing decay and leaving a building to live and die has its place in our heritage as much as the preened and pampered stately homes...
'an empty building or ruin can be powerfully redolent of human emotions.'
As a couple the Pipers excelled in hospitality and the warm and friendly welcome, Fawley Bottom becoming a mecca for all the artistic names of the day.
Meanwhile John Piper starts to make a good living from his art. Royal commissions follow along with some national and commemorative projects of which I had been blissfully unaware. It's always the way isn't it...until a name registers it means nothing. The commission from the King and Queen in 1941, a set of watercolours of Windsor Castle before it was likely to be bombed and destroyed, was not a huge success with the Royal gaze.
'You seem to have had very bad luck with your weather Mr Piper,' remarked King George, whilst the Queen's reaction likewise lukewarm, both failing to appreciate at the time John Piper's dark and brooding skies and pervasive melancholy.
I doubt the Royal family regret that commission now, the pictures, apparently displayed to good effect in Clarence House, must be worth a fortune.
As well as the famous Baptistry windows in Coventry Cathedral, and windows in both Chichester and Liverpool Cathedrals (Metropolitan) there is probably a parish church near you that has John Piper's stained glass...
St Andrew's, Wolverhampton
All Saint's Clifton, Bristol
Tudeley Church, Tonbridge
St Matthew's, Southcote, Reading
St Matthew's, Northampton
St Margaret's, Westminster
And near us too because we had no idea that St Andrew's Minster in Plymouth had such a wonderful array of John Piper windows...
With their characteristic strong reds and deep blues we were awestruck by these on that trip into the city on the Somme centenary day...
The church was decimated during the blitz of 1941 and I can only hope the person who placed a sign saying Resurgam over the door the following day lived to see the glory that arose from these particular ashes.
If you are in Plymouth city centre it is well worth wandering along Royal Parade and into St Andrew's. It took us forty years and this book to know they were there.
And I wonder if these John Piper murals are still there, has anyone passed these offices in Fulham recently...
And nor did John Piper stop at stained glass. It is thought that by the end of his life he had designed for and mastered every conceivable craft method and outlet turning to pottery, tapestry and gardening in his later years.
Admired for his detachment and tolerance, humour, love of gossip, inner strength, forbearance, generosity and kindness, John Piper was described by Richard Ingrams of Private Eye thus...
'He's a marvellous person to talk to if you're thinking of committing suicide.'
And if you have ever read John Betjeman's poem Myfanwy and wondered, well wonder no more. It is Myfanwy Piper and for whom it seems the poet had more than a passing attraction...
Kind o’er the kinderbank leans my Myfanwy,
White o’er the playpen the sheen of her dress,
Fresh from the bathroom and soft in the nursery
Soap scented fingers I long to caress.
Were you a prefect and head of your dormit'ry?
Were you a hockey girl, tennis or gym?
Who was your favourite? Who had a crush on you?
Which were the baths where they taught you to swim?
Smooth down the Avenue glitters the bicycle,
Black-stockinged legs under navy blue serge,
Home and Colonial, Star, International,
Balancing bicycle leant on the verge....
(Extract Myfanwy by John Betjeman from "Old Lights for New Chancels" (1940) & "Collected Poems")
What a couple and what a book.
We are now on John Piper alert wherever we go (can you believe I have never seen Coventry Cathedral) so if you can add any more sightings to our list I would be very grateful, but meanwhile don't miss John Piper Myfanwy Piper - Lives in Art by Frances Spalding (Oxford University Press 2009) should be in a library near you and if you have read it, or are a fan of the Pipers I would love to know your thoughts.
I have come to the conclusion that every age needs a John Piper 'the laureate of the picturesque' and am trying to think whether we have one now, in 2016, and if so who it might be.