William Feaver

  • John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art by Frances Spalding
    Oxford, 598 pp, £25.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 956761 4

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.

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