The elongated shards of smog grey, pea green and lemonade that, since 1968, have cast a wan light on pews reserved for the use of MPs in St Margaret’s, Westminster, are untypical of John Piper. Normally, his stained glass seethes, particularly in Coventry Cathedral, where a Piper sunburst behind the boulder that serves as a font irradiates a great wall of clunky fenestration. In Westminster though, in a building studded with fanciful monuments, he had decided to cool it a little. ‘Visitors sometimes failed to notice this glass,’ Frances Spalding reports, late on in her commendably thorough dual biography. ‘John regarded this as a compliment and said he wished there were more opportunities to make such discreet interventions.’
To ‘Piper’ a building is to subject it to collage, blackout and inky, fiddly bits. As George VI is said to have stammered on viewing the artist’s wartime watercolours of Windsor Castle, ‘You seem to have had very bbbad luck with your weather, Mr Piper.’ Apocryphal or not, the remark stuck. Trust the king to get it wrong: Mr Piper couldn’t have had better weather; he had made it so. His stormclouds over the Round Tower are as darkly fatty as British Restaurant oxtail soup. A touch of excess came naturally to him; he warmed to the worn pinnacle and the shoulder-high box pew; he loved to stress not just the weather but the neglect to be savoured in country churchyards, where crosses tilt and cow parsley brushes the rusted gate. His reputation, at its height during the war and for about a decade afterwards, rested on the look he fabricated, a graphic look compounded of stage flats and wizened textures picked out in brass-rubbing black, ceiling white, royal blue and pillarbox red. Here was a love of the notionally unspoilt, a harking back to George V Georgian and, ideally, to the Georgian of Georges IV, III and II, not to mention the Edwardian of Edward the Confessor. Steeped in the notion of things peculiarly English (and Welsh), it was a dedication more enthusiastic than reverential. Piper’s heyday coincided with that of Ealing Studios; indeed, his posters for Robert Hamer’s Pink String and Sealing Wax and Charles Crichton’s Painted Boats were demonstratively appropriate, though Googie Withers dolled up like a Staffordshire figure in front of a spread of Kemp Town Georgian exerted rather more box office pull than the bargeful of bargee art jammed in a benighted fen.
Piper was born in Epsom in 1903 and by the age of 14 had inspected, he claimed, almost every church in Surrey. Where other schoolboys collected fragments from torched zeppelins he accumulated church guides and sought as birthday presents volumes in the Highways and Byways series published by Macmillan; those illustrated by F.L. Griggs in high-definition Arts and Crafts manner had particular appeal. In 1923, he published Wind in the Trees, the first of two collections of poems. Later, a trip to France with his father brought revelation: his first sighting of a Monet view of the portals of Rouen Cathedral. Monet and Griggs was to be Piper’s winning combination: gauziness crazed with detail. By then he was articled in his father’s firm, Piper, Smith & Piper in Vincent Square, with a view (his father’s view) to becoming a solicitor. His hair began turning grey.
In March 1927 his father died, prompting him to abandon the law and enrol at the Royal College of Art. His mother, a softer touch, provided an allowance and paid for Chalkpit Cottage, a thatched bungalow below the Downs near Dorking, enabling him in 1929 to marry a fellow student, Eileen Holding, and carry on painting while supplementing his income by writing for the Saturday Review, the Nation and the Listener, covering gramophone records and drama as well as art. He was elected a member of the Seven and Five Society, and thus enrolled in the English avant-garde, shortly before Ben Nicholson took over and rebranded it the 7&5. He went along with what was in effect a pro-abstract putsch. His seaside collages, cross-Channel echoes of Picasso and Braque, qualified as just about abstract enough.
Meeting Myfanwy Evans one weekend in June 1934 was a turning point. A recent Oxford graduate with a chemist’s shop background who had just left a dogsbody job at the Times Book Club, she set her shoulder to him as he cast around for inspiration and whetted his energies. Six months later they set up home together in Fawley Bottom, a decrepit farmhouse near Henley and there, by the light of Aladdin lamps, they established the profusely eclectic Piper look. Like their good, plain house, they were brick and flint combined, he the chippy one, she warm and blunt. Outbuildings were gradually converted to studios, a Calder mobile was planted in the garden and at their kitchen table connections were fed. ‘My! What a spread for the friends of Myfanwy,’ John Betjeman carolled, spiriting the second Mrs Piper (‘my silken Myfanwy’) back into his imagined childhood: ‘Ringleader, tom-boy, and chum to the weak.’
The real Myfanwy decided to start a magazine bright enough to show the world that Britain was not beyond the reach of international art. ‘The battle has been pitched between abstract painting and sculpture and surrealist painting and sculpture,’ she wrote in Axis 6. ‘It is a silly battle.’ Demonstrating complicity, savvy and a practised hand with the scalpel, her husband cut the Paramat blocks for colour reproductions of a Miró, a Picasso and a Nicholson, as well as one of his own slatty abstracts. Axis ran to eight numbers. From it, and other sources, Myfanwy Evans/Piper compiled, in 1937, The Painter’s Object, an anthology rich in contrasts: Calder on ‘Mobiles’, Nash (‘one’s artistic father’) on ‘Swanage, or Seaside Surrealism’, ‘Guernica’ (in 1937 Picasso’s latest) and ‘Cross-shaft at Codford St Peter, Wiltshire. Early ninth century (photos John Piper)’.
‘Of course we were as poor as church mice,’ Piper assured me once, with Myfanwy nodding agreement. Poor but busy, they were flush enough to buy a secondhand Lancia and roam the country seeking fonts to photograph, and not only these – fonts manned by bewildered looking Romanesque figures – but lychgates and stoups and worm-eaten tithe barns, things beyond the remit of 7&5 and the cult of the whited circle within the whited square. To Nicholson, Piper’s departure into the byways of Old England was disgraceful: he wrote him off vituperously. Piper, however, had allies, Geoffrey Grigson for one (though, characteristically, not for long) and Betjeman, through whom relations were established with the Architectural Review and with whom he became chief scout, as it were, of the Shell Guides.
Betjeman’s Cornwall first appeared, spiralbound and crammed with mock didacticism (‘This is a blind Primitive Methodist woman preacher of a type that is fast dying out’) in June 1934. After producing Oxon, in 1937, Piper took on Shropshire with Betjeman and, for decades, the joint editorship of the series. His photographs served as illustrations throughout, both close-ups of fonts etc and wider views of each county, buildings glistening and skies darkened to taste. The Shell Guides are Piper all over, selectively comprehensive and abounding in detours. He prefaced the new edition of Oxfordshire in 1953 with ‘My thanks are due to my wife and to Mr John Betjeman, who have been continued and unresisted influences.’ Their influence was to encourage him as he became ever more convinced of the desirability of keeping up old appearances. For him, a sense of preservation was essential. Darkness might prevail but under lens-filter or colourwash buildings withstood innovation, each a pickled Piper come what may.
When the then queen directed his attention to the wisteria in the Frogmore gardens in Windsor Great Park as an excellent subject for his pen and wash, Piper responded politely but retreated to the rooftops, where he found aspects of Windsor Castle more to his liking. Patronage was tricky. Kenneth Clark, intimate of the queen, had secured the commission for six or more Windsor watercolours for the Royal Collection. Thanks to Clark he had a good war, employed as he was for much of it as an official war artist specialising in giving blitzed churches (notably Coventry Cathedral) a heraldic look, chancels standing like battered shields against cycloramic backdrops. Spalding suggests that Myfanwy Piper had something approaching an affair with Clark who, ever suave, pronounced the couple ‘two of the most completely humanised people I have ever known’. That she had a crush on him is undeniable, just as Mr Piper (as Betjeman referred to him) had a crush on the Sitwells or, rather, on Renishaw, their splendidly dilapidated stately home, a place of perpetual dusk where rooks cawed indoors and out. Everything there suited his pen. ‘You seem to be part of the life of the house,’ Edith Sitwell said to him, only to slap him down as ‘very coarse and an utter egoist’ when he failed to come to her support against Grigson in 1948, even though three months earlier, in Horizon, Grigson had dismissed Piper’s war works as ‘in general static and scenic and unmoving’.
Spalding stresses Piper’s rapidity, the deftness with which he could stop out highlights with candle wax (a dodge lifted, presumably, from Henry Moore) and sidestep unpleasantnesses. He did have a streak of arrogance however. His expertise was secure in areas where no other artist since Cotman – not excepting F.L. Griggs – had set foot. Not even Ruskin had addressed himself so persistently to the parochial. Having been a one-man salvage corps making bomb damage presentable, he reverted in peacetime to the intricacies of dogtooth and crenellation. Funny old world: darkness shot through with viridian and process white. Spalding has to admit that he became ‘less original’. But then originality had never been his forte; his qualities were appreciative.
In the early 1950s, as the new Elizabethan age dawned, the Pipers worked with Benjamin Britten. Piper’s designs played up to the ivied pageantry and cod madrigality of Gloriana in 1953 and dominated the look of Britten’s operas, from The Rape of Lucretia to Death in Venice. Myfanwy Piper wrote the libretto for The Turn of the Screw in 1954 and even succeeded in never falling out with Britten, going on to collaborate with him on Owen Wingrave and Death in Venice, the latter in 1973 being the last stifling shimmer of Piper stage decor.
The work meanwhile proliferated. Paintings became roughcast with spurts of white on hessian. Stained glass, designed for Patrick Reyntiens to execute, became standard in reasonably go-ahead churches. The late 1960s Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool outperformed Coventry in having Piper glass all round, filling the central lantern and casting a lurid cineramic light on the otherwise civic interior. Stained glass work and a reputation for being a sound chap as regards church towers led to Piper being prevailed on to serve on diocesan advisory committees and help choreograph firework displays for occasions such as the opening of the Tate extension on Millbank in 1979. From 1967 to 1984 (when the series died off) he was sole editor of the Shell Guides.
‘I don’t regard myself as a success – just scratching along,’ the 83-year-old Piper said in 1987. Compared with Nicholson (who had died five years before, set in his ways of scraping and staining sheets of hardboard) he was essentially modest and inquiring; unlike Nicholson, he spread himself impulsively across the applied arts: curtains and wallpaper, murals, mosaics and platters. One bizarre diversion in the 1960s and 1970s was a series he called Eye and Camera: collages and screenprints featuring Myfanwy in black stockings only. ‘The series,’ Spalding explains, ‘offered an outlet for John’s interest in the erotic, and through it he showed his awareness of Pop art.’ That’s stretching it a bit, but here, at page 408, Spalding’s reserves of enthusiasm are already on the wane. By 1983 she is lapsing into Daisy Ashfordese: ‘The opening was peopled with royalty, ambassadors and the titled,’ she writes, echoing the esteemed Mr Salteena. When events pall for lack of royalty and the diplomatic corps, she resorts to ‘many old friends turned up at the private view and the exhibition was widely reviewed.’
Her difficulty finding interesting things to say about late Piper is nothing compared to the trouble she has with having to attend to him and her. More than once she detects ‘a welcome streak of laziness’ in Myfanwy. She argues that ‘a degree of innate laziness, mixed with domestic responsibilities curtailed her creativity.’ She finds herself reduced to lame digressions. Myfanwy
had an eye for interesting materials and employed dressmakers in her vicinity. She also shopped with zest … Her favourite Karl Lagerfeld blouses were bought at Options, in Henley, and in London she frequented Liberty’s, where there was a particular assistant who advised her. It was here, in the latter part of her life, that she bought clothes by Issey Miyake.
As I remember her, Myfanwy was robust in brown, loud in genial reproaches as she dished out lunch. This was in the late 1970s. She stood by, shredding reputations, as John rummaged in a chest for spare copies of Axis, remonstrating mildly. He died in 1992, she in 1997.
In March 1958, the first section of the M1 was inaugurated, with the sealing by the minister of transport of a concrete slab on a bridge at Slip End near Luton. That month Collins Guide to English Parish Churches (including the Isle of Man) was at the printers. ‘The Editor’s thanks are due to Mr John Piper for causing this book to be compiled,’ John Betjeman wrote in the acknowledgments. County by county, with dozens of writers, the book was conceived as a conducted tour of Piperism and Betjemaniana, from Celtic cross to Saxon crypt to Arts and Crafts Gothic in Roker, Co. Durham. The Piper dust jacket featured a crusty, salmon-toned church interior. The plates included 12 photographs by Piper (fewer than by his one rival in that field, Edwin Smith) and line drawings of flint flushwork and other fine detailing graced the introduction.