Book Review: John Piper. Myfanwy Piper

by Frances Spalding, Oxford, 2009, ISBN 978-0-19-956761-4 £25

It is difficult to know where to begin when tackling John Piper. He lived a long and productive life, working successfully in a variety of styles and media. Although crudely categorised by some as a ‘traditional’ artist, in fact there was an abstract side to his work which sprang up early in his career and was to resurface throughout it. It must have been a daunting task for Frances Spalding to set about writing this biography, and it weighs in at just under 600 pages. Admittedly, some of these pages are devoted to John’s wife, Myfanwy, but not many. The rest are needed to try to do justice to John’s huge output and vast range.

Does the book succeed in doing justice to this extraordinary artist? Well, sort of. I think that for a book to do full justice to the man would require an even longer book, probably in a number of volumes. One could imagine long sections on the abstract paintings, the landscapes, the architectural pictures, the churches, stage designs, ceramics and stained glass, not to mention the work on the Shell Guides and the photographs and so on. And, indeed, to an extent there are some of these books available already, dealing with separate aspects of Piper’s work. David Fraser Jenkins, for example, has in recent years given us exhibitions and accompanying splendid catalogues, on Piper’s work in the 30’s and 40’s.

Yet this is only the second book which has attempted to draw it all together and it clearly supersedes the biography of Piper by Anthony West from 1979. So, I would say that it succeeds in drawing the disparate pieces together and presenting them as a whole: giving some shape to a long and complicated life. To an extent the trick in a work of this type is not to give equal weight to every aspect of a long and varied life, but to establish a rhythm which fills in the areas of substance across a loose biographical framework. In doing so, the author has to tread an extremely difficult line between the detail and the highlights. Too much detail and the book sinks under the weight; too many highlights and the work ceases to be a balanced biography.

I should say that Frances Spalding has done an excellent job in treading this delicate path. She is, of course, a highly experienced biographer and, if I may say so, a highly respected one. She is thorough and careful in her research. She makes no attempt to write in any sort of ‘intellectual’ way, but she writes with commonsense and balance – no arty theorizing for her, and this sort of book is all the better for it.

Piper’s importance as a 20th century British artist is undeniable, as is his ranking below the top rank. In many ways he was his own worst enemy, turning his hand to all manner of artistic forms and succeeding in pretty well everything he attempted. As such, he was perhaps too commercially safe and successful for his own reputation as a creative artist. He was perhaps too much of a craftsman, his considerable artistic skills adapting to this and that commercial requirement with ease. His safeness must also be recognised. Although the abstract aspect to some of his work could be a little ‘modern’, he was not so modern that he could not be commissioned to record Windsor Castle for the Royal Family during the War, and there was a time in the 1980’s when one could not enter a City boardroom without seeing at least one, and often many, Piper prints (the alternative, I vividly recall, being works by Ivon Hitchens).

Anyway, there is nothing remotely wrong with his multifarious achievements. He rather falls into the category of that other brilliant artist/craftsman, Edward Bawden and one would love to see a scholarly book comparing and contrasting the work of those two. But when the author claims, at one point, (on page 263) that Sutherland, Moore and Piper were “the leading names in English art at the end of the War”, one has to pinch oneself to make sure one is not seeing things. Bacon was newly arrived on the scene by then, already controversial, although admittedly not yet of a stature in the art world to attract widespread approval. But Paul Nash was still alive, as was the great Sir William Nicholson (and even little Ben Nicholson). Clearly Piper was above most of the St Ives bunch generally and also people like Pasmore and the Euston Road lot, but what of Matthew Smith, Augustus John, Stanley Spencer, Edward Burra and so on? No, it is a rare lapse by the author; a rare loss of perspective. Piper was a good and interesting artist, but never any more than that.
Myfanwy is another matter. When I got this book and saw that she had, as it were, equal billing, I have to say that I groaned, at least inwardly and probably aloud. What appalling political correctness had driven this otherwise sensible author to bracket the wife with the high-achieving husband? What possible justification could there be for that? Well, now I have read the book I can see why she did it. I still think it’s an error, but not such an egregious one as it first appeared.

Let me put it simply. Myfanwy was a talented woman in her own right. She had, indeed, many talents quite independently of her husband, mostly in her use of the written word, her librettos for Benjamin Britten’s operas being her highest-profile achievement. But really, looked at from the point of view of a book primarily about her husband, her main achievement, dare I say it, was as a support to her husband, maintaining a household in which he could be secure and flourish. And that’s all there is to it. If she hadn’t been his wife we wouldn’t be reading a book about her.

Oxford University Press do not stray often enough into the art publishing world and they have produced a handsome volume here. However, they could make a few corrections for the inevitable paperback or second edition. Either they or the author are not immune from silly little errors, easily dealt with. It isn’t “practiced” on page 55; it’s “practised”. It isn’t “Laycock” on page 151; it’s “Lacock”. Can it be “traveling” on page 152 and not “travelling”? The footnote reference to the third Viscount Ridley on page 191 makes it sound as if he is still alive; when in fact he died in 1964. “Henry Greene” pops up on page 210 instead of Henry Green, and so on. Less easily dealt with is an occasionally clanging style. The Preface is the worst section of the book for this and parts of it need attention. The author surely cannot want her readers to be met by this sort of English as soon as they begin the book: “settled down at a remove from the metropolis”; “a trajectory shaped by a hiatus”; “opening his art to a sense of place”; the strange word “contradictoriness” in the same phrase as “quintessentially”; “with him I co-curated” (perhaps the “co-” is otiose)?

But such quibbles will soon be forgotten. After the Preface, the author’s style settles well into its normal straightforward, careful prose; perfectly readable and satisfactory. This is a good book by an important art biographer and a welcome contribution to Piper studies.