Exhibitions: John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism; Counterpoint II: Modern Realism 191-1950

By Freeman, Laura | The Spectator, May 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions: John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism; Counterpoint II: Modern Realism 191-1950


Freeman, Laura, The Spectator


A story John Piper liked to tell -- and the one most told about him -- is of a morning at Windsor presenting his watercolours of the castle to King George VI and the Queen. She admired his storm-tossed battlements; the King did not. 'You seem to have had very bad luck with your weather, Mr Piper.' If this was a criticism of the artist's gloomy and gothic tendency, it was an unfair one. Mr Piper was very unlucky with his weather.

In Caernarvonshire in 1945, on a sketching trip with two small children in tow, it never stopped drizzling. In 1946, on another family sketching holiday in Pentre, his wife, the librettist Myfanwy Piper, wrote grimly to a friend: 'JP is doing a drawing in a churchyard in a howling wind and both children and I are in the car and they are either shaking or shouting or asking me for a pencil or paper or hurling insults at each other and its frantic and my feet are cold.'

In 1975, Piper travelled to Chichester to paint the cathedral for a book to celebrate the 900th anniversary of its foundation. The Dean, Walter Hussey, was particularly grateful given the 'appalling' weather conditions that met Piper's arrival. King George might have minded the sturm-und-drang of Piper's art, but in Hussey Piper found a sympathetic patron.

In 1964, Hussey and Piper had collaborated on a project for the High Altar at Chichester. Piper suggested a tapestry, a medium he had never tried before. His cartoons for the tapestry -- 'very early and immature sketches', Piper apologised to Hussey, 'scribbles on the back of an envelope' -- are among the exhibits at John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. It is an invigorating show, dashing colourfully through Piper's textiles, tapestries, church vestments, silk scarves and woolpile rugs with great brio.

The tapestry cartoons show Piper's process of working-out: overcoming the challenge of how to abstract the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and the four evangelists, and mastering an unfamiliar medium. He played with collages of cut marbled papers, studied the tapestries of the Renaissance 'to see how they had managed it', and marvelled at the expertise of the weavers at the Pinton workshop at Felletin. There's a glorious photo in the catalogue (superbly illustrated and a joy to read, edited by Simon Martin and Frances Spalding) of the doughy housewives of Felletin inspecting the completed Chichester tapestry laid out in the town square.

For the tapestries proper, it's five minutes from Pallant to the Cathedral. …

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