As in life, so in this substantial book, Myfanwy, the wife of the postwar English artist John Piper, plays only a supporting role, although the story would be much less entertaining without her.
Frances Spalding accuses her of "innate laziness" but there was no cook and four children ("time-wasters", according to Myfanwy) to raise. Electricity was not installed at the family's Oxfordshire farmhouse, Fawley Bottom, until the 1950s, and TV ("a great time taker", John Piper) only admitted on sufferance in the 1960s. Until opulence arrived in old age it was "big overdrafts and worn-out cars".
John Piper had the luck to be born in 1903, ensuring he escaped military service in both world wars. His nonconformist father, Charles Piper, founded a London solicitors' firm and built a villa in Epsom. John inherited a love of country churches from him but was denied art school and forced to follow his three brothers into the family business. There he languished for five years, his failure to qualify coinciding with his father's death. His mother then made it financially possible for him to go to the Royal College of Art. She was a great help with money in the early years.
There was a first childless and failed marriage, unknown to his children until the 1960s. Life truly began when he met the spirited, witty and impossible to embarrass Myfanwy ("Goldilocks", John Betjeman) Evans, newly down from Oxford, in 1934. In later years, he would say that the only artistic judgments he trusted were those of Myfanwy, Betjeman and Kenneth Clark. All were his friends from the 1930s and vital to his artistic advance.
Piper first created waves as a critic, then as an abstract artist in Ben Nicholson's avant-garde 7 & 5 Society. For a while, he was a devout abstractionist, supported by Myfanwy's editorship of the new art magazine Axis, but both soon reverted to their true love of native traditions and "romantic" style, of "pleasing decay" and "decrepit glory". It was a move encouraged by friendship with Betjeman and rustic life at Fawley. In no time, John was making aquatints for architectural illustration. Through Betjeman, the Pipers were also confirmed as members of the Anglican Church.
It is ironic that his abstract paintings, which Piper subsequently dismissed, are, through rarity, today valued in hundreds of thousands. A classic "Piper", on the other hand, is lucky to make £50,000. This could have been mentioned in such a thoroughly researched book; as also the extent of his stylistic debt to the invariably underestimated Raoul Dufy.