The Serendipitous Piper

Buried in the intellectual detritus that was left in an office I was moving into some years ago was a print. It has the title “Proof # 5. Plate 3,” is signed “John Piper” and is dated April 11th, 1974. I liked the print and took it home. It now sits in our vestibule across the hall from Bev Abramson’s “On a Mission.” (We’ve chosen art that is predominantly black-and-white for the vestibule.)

Piper the Polymath

The question I want to answer for this post: “who is (or was) John Piper?” In addition to the Wikipedia article, I found a retrospective exhibit at Tate Liverpool, a biography by the British art historian Anthony West, and a festschrift celebrating his 80th birthday in 1983. The festschrift begins with his portrait by the renowned photographer Lord Snowdon, one of his paintings of Windsor Castle, and greetings from Elizabeth R., making reference to the paintings of Windsor Castle. The message is clear: Piper (1903-1992) was a member of the British art establishment.

Reading about Piper’s life presents a more nuanced story. Piper’s father was a lawyer and amateur artist. When Piper showed interest and talent in art, his father made clear his expectation that he would work in the family firm and limit his art to a hobby. Piper did that for a few years, but soon liberated himself, though without financial support from the family. Piper began his career as an abstract artist, but soon took a figurative turn. He was also a writer, doing art reviews in his early years, starting a new art journal together with his wife Myfanwy Evans, and collaborating with the writer John Betjeman in a series of county-by-county British travel guides sponsored by Shell (comparable to the Michelin Guides).

During World War II, Piper was an official War Artist, focusing his attention on British churches immediately after they had been bombed. His public service continued as a long-time trustee of the Tate Gallery and a member of the Royal Fine Arts Commission. The latter reviewed proposals for major buildings and public monuments, and Piper’s encyclopedic knowledge of the British terrain – built and natural – was invaluable.

Piper also designed theatre and opera sets early in his career, in later years designed stained glass windows, and was also adept at collage and ceramics.

With all these accomplishments, one could ask whether Piper was a great artist. The question answers itself. The critical consensus seems to be that Piper was only near great, likely because both his themes and style are often sombre and bleak. I asked my British colleague Perri 6 – a man of wide knowledge – about Piper and he wrote me that “the interminable series of churches – and especially the ones of the ruins of Coventry Cathedral after the bombing – grew wearisome, even though he did modulate the lighting, or rather the lack of it in the hope of some chiaroscuro” and “there is often so much excess detail which adds little and can detract from the argument of the painting.” Similarly, King George VI remarked to Piper about his portraits of Windsor Castle, “you seem to have had very bad luck with your weather, Mr. Piper.”

Piper seems to me to be unusual in that he had so many talents and was willing to deploy them so widely. I think his biographer Anthony West (1979) has an important insight into the development of his character: “In the years between 1936 and 1939, he ceased to aspire to be an artist in the bohemian sense of the word, and he became a craftsman, resolved to live out his days, humble before God and his craft, fulfilling his Christian duty to make full use of the talents with which he had been endowed in whatever circumstances he might be given the opportunity to use them” (p. 92). West also describes Piper’s “always orderly workroom” in which “everything in it that was for use was laid out with foresight and precision, and with an austere elegance, so that it fairly radiated the sense that its occupant was on top of his job” (p. 120).

An academic analogy comes to mind. Professors have many responsibilities: research, teaching in large and small classes, administration, and serving as a public intellectual. Rare is the person who excels in all these areas, and still more rare the person who is willing to make all these talents available to their university. Piper would be that person.

A Day at the Ocean

Now let’s look at my print. Late in his career, Piper was reverting to his early abstract style. But the print looks to me like a representation of a beach on the ocean, albeit in colours not normally associated with that setting. Across the top of the print, under a cloudless sky, is the horizon. Below the horizon in the upper trapezoid there are undulating lines that suggest waves rolling and circular figures that suggest waves crashing. The lower ochre-coloured lower trapezoid suggests a shoreline and beach, with ripples in the sand. If the print were representing the ocean as seen by someone on the beach, the shoreline would be parallel to the horizon. I think of the print as representing the shoreline as seen from above, say from a plane flying low over the beach. It brings to mind the relaxation and indeed elation I feel spending a day at the ocean.

If you see something different in the print, or even if you think it represents nothing at all, I think you will agree with me that it has lightness, motion, energy, texture, and rhythm.

I tried to place this print, which Piper tells us he executed on Thursday, April 11, 1974, within his overall corpus. In the Seventies he was painting representational landscapes, often of cathedrals and castles. It is not clear to me how this print, and the others associated with it – the other plates and other proofs – fit in. I contacted Martin Tinney, a UK art dealer familiar with Piper’s work, and he didn’t find it in Orde Levinson’s The Complete Graphic Works of John Piper. So its provenance remains a mystery.

The Stone the Builders Rejected

It is likely that a person for whom religion is as important as it was to Piper would recognize the phrase “The stone the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118, v. 22). Thus the print another person discarded has become a cherished image in our home.

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