Piper calls the tune at Warwick gallery

Exhibition of acclaimed British artist’s work.

The final exhibition at Warwick Arts Centre’s Mead Gallery prior to its closure for major re-modelling, John Piper, surveys the early career of the great British artist whose work spanned everything from paintings and stained glass, to travel writing, film posters and theatre set designs.

Produced by Mead in collaboration with Tate Liverpool, the exhibition focuses primarily on the 1930s-1940s when Piper was at the forefront of the avant-garde in Britain, and features rare abstraction paintings, prints, sketches and photographs, as well as textiles and examples of his stained glass work.

Despite the variety of work on display, what comes through is Piper’s fascination with the British landscape and its heritage, from wave-kissed beaches to rolling hills, all scenes imbued with a Romantic atmosphere that recalls the work of Samuel Palmer and others, yet is distinctly Piper.

“He was profoundly interested in our national heritage and history, while at the same time being sensitive to the modern movement,” Tate Curator Darren Pih explains. “It’s a modern image of the English landscape.”

Can you tell us a bit about some of the key works in the Mead exhibition?

“There are so many beautiful works in the Mead exhibition. I’m fond of the abstract constructions made in 1934, at a time when he was most closely associated with Ben Nicholson and the Seven and Five Society. During this period his work became almost entirely abstract and compositionally dynamic. He made works using modern materials including brightly coloured plastics.

“The abstract constructions evolved out of his coastal pictures and have a nautical aesthetic. Abstract Construction, which is on loan from the Whitworth in Manchester, includes painted areas which are coarsely textured as the pigment is mixed with sand. The entire composition resembles a seafarer’s navigational device, with interlinked dowelling suggesting rigging and painted lines suggesting trajectories and routes. Another wonderful work is Harbour Scene, Newhaven 1936-1937. It’s a collage evoking the cacophony of a bustling harbour.

“It also pays homage to the influence of French art, showing the French flag alongside the Union Jack. To me, it’s significant that a very British artist such as John Piper drew inspiration from the European avant-garde in the years before the war.

“Within the period covered by the exhibition, there’s a huge variety of work – pure abstraction, romantic landscapes, images for the War Artists Advisory Committee and Recording Britain, painting, print-making, criticism, travel writing, photography, design. Was this a rare thing at the time? Or were other artists in Britain also broadening their creative horizons?

“Piper certainly was associated with his generation of artists, such as Ben Nicholson and Paul Nash and later with the so-called Neo-Romantic artists of the 1940s. But he was always very independent and distrusted being associated, or limited, by any single movement or style.”

What kind of affect to you think that ability to work so successfully across various media, and in different mediums, has had on Piper’s reputation over the years?

“It contributed to his popularity and made his work accessible. He expressed himself across a range of different media because he had no prejudice. For example, he used the compositions of his paintings as printed textiles. It was a ‘delegated art’ that enabled him to disperse his imagery across a wider audience. The palette and luminosity of colour in his paintings around 1950 eased the transition to him designing stained glass windows.

“For him, it was like painting using coloured light. Piper seemed to find value in all things as they came, without prejudice. You can see this in his writings which embraced not just the visual arts, but subjects including opera, vernacular architecture, typography and even texts on English folk dancing.

Where did his love for the British landscape and its history come from?

“His appreciation of our native landscape blossomed from a young age. Piper’s family would tour to locations within striking distance of their home in Epsom. It was a recreational pursuit leading Piper to develop a taste for drawing and writing, through his interest in learning about new places. It was a cultured and bookish upbringing. In spring 1923, Piper and his father toured Northern Italy. It opened his eyes to Italian art and architecture, and reinforced his desired to pursue a career as an artist.”

The artist has strong connections to Coventr …

“Yes, very strong connections to Coventry. As an official war artist, Piper was asked to record the damage sustained to bombed churches during the blitz. On 15 November, he received a message to travel immediately to Coventry, in response to the air raid the previous evening. The sketches of the ruined cathedral made by Piper are the basis of some of his powerful paintings, including the work presented in the show at the Mead.”

Post-war, Piper began designing stained glass. Would it be fair to describe Coventry’s Baptistry Window as his greatest achievement in this area?

“Definitely. It’s important to note that his finest stained-glass windows were made in collaboration with Patrick Reyntiens, who is one of the outstanding stained-glass practitioners of his generation.”

What was Piper’s role(s) with the Shell Travel Guides?

“Piper was known to have a scholarly appreciation of British landscape and its history, so it was natural he would be involved with the Shell Guides to the British counties. They were commissioned in 1933 by Jack Beddington. His involvement ensured that modern artists were invited to compile the guides, including Paul Nash. They were published on a county-by-county basis under the editorial control of John Betjeman, with Piper becoming his co-editor in 1949. Piper, of course, compiled an especially idiosyncratic guide to Oxfordshire in 1938.”

What influence do you think the guides had on opening up the countryside for the middle-classes?

“I think they’re beyond class. The guides had a commercial imperative to increase sales of petrol among a new breed of car-owning metropolitan tourist, encouraging them explore the countryside. It was the golden age of serious minded travel.”

Briefly, what’s Piper’s story post-exhibition (mid/late-50s to his death in ’92)?

“It’s impossible to do justice to the sheer breadth of his practice across his long career. Our exhibition puts most emphasis on his work from the 1930s and 1940s.”

John Piper continues at Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL until Thursday 21 June 2018. Open daily from noon-9pm. Admission free. Details