John Piper in Kent and Sussex – Exhibition at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne curated by Nathaniel Hepburn
curated by Nathaniel Hepburn. Catalogue with contributions from various authors: ISBN 978-0-9567676-0-8, Paddock Wood, 2011
Reviewing Frances Spalding’s biography of John and Myfanwy Piper in these pages I commented upon the extraordinary range of Piper’s achievements. This excellent exhibition provoked the same thought. The problem with the biographical form for someone so wide-ranging in his tastes and abilities as Piper is that it would probably need three or four large hardback volumes to do justice to his artistic career. Less than that and one may find oneself skating over the sea of achievements. Here, by using a curious geographical focus, the problem is able to be wrestled under control by taking a thin rich slice of the Piper cake and studying it in a bit of detail.
The county-based endeavour to put together this show is admirable. Clearly a lot of people were motivated to organise what were initially three separate shows, at Mascalls Gallery in Paddock Wood, at the Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery and at Scotney Castle at Lamberhurst, before joining them all together in the Towner Gallery at Eastbourne. Moreover, a lot of lenders were engaged in loaning their works; and finally there are quite a few individual contributions to the hardback catalogue.
What has all this hard work produced? Piper can be linked to many different areas of the British Isles. One could probably pair up any number of counties – even some Irish counties – and produce a show of this type. I certainly don’t think we should ascribe to him any particular link to these two counties. But whichever counties we looked at, the work has an intimate and thorough relationship to the places he covered. He clearly loved travelling round, sketching and photographing churches and views, becoming a sort of topographical polymath – an artistic Nikolaus Pevsner (with whom Piper is compared in one of the contributions in the catalogue, in the context of his work on the Shell Guides).
In Kent and Sussex there were some focuses for Piper’s engagement. Christopher Hussey at Scotney Castle was one such link. Old Scotney Castle must be one of the most beautiful places in England, (insofar as such things can be measured). That this amazingly romantic setting should have caught and held Piper’s artistic eye is not surprising. Similarly, Piper was one of a number of artists to benefit from the artistic patronage emanating from Chichester Cathedral, first in the form of Bishop Bell and then in the person of Dean Hussey (was he related to Christopher?). Then again, there was Eddie Sackville-West at Knole, with his many links into the artistic and wider cultural community of the time, wanting to ensure that views of Knole preserved its memory in an area of potential aerial destruction (the fairways at Knole Park Golf Club were considered so inviting for enemy gliders that they were deliberately blocked).
In fact Piper didn’t need to have his interests stirred by those of patrons – he could easily motivate himself to sniff out the fascinating places he liked to paint. A good example would be the strange, eccentric group of churches which still adorn Romney Marsh. When Piper got to them they were no doubt even more atmospheric and quirky than they seem today and he produced a gorgeous group of pictures of them.
The catalogue for this show is also a pleasure, with good colour reproductions of the things on display and a variety of textual contributions from different authors. My only slight reservation about some of these pieces is that it would have been better if some of them had been allowed to be a little longer, so that their messages could have been better developed. Each author had something interesting to say, but it was as if some of them had been told to work to a small number of words.
All in all, a very fine achievement indeed. With the excellent exhibitions in the last ten years at Dulwich and the Imperial War Museum (particularly driven by David Fraser Jenkins), the biography and now this, Piper is starting to get the sort of attention he undoubtedly deserves. Who can we compare him with in the pantheon of great 20th century British artists? I would hope that some enterprising gallery somewhere would put him up against the equally prolific and versatile Edward Bawden, so that we could compare the output of those two excellent near-contemporaries.