Bad Luck with the Weather

John Piper, Myfanwy Piper, Lives in Art by Frances Spalding

John McEwan

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.

The monument to his friendship with Betjeman is the Shell Guide series, the first of which was commissioned in 1937. The idiosyncratic and entertaining guides were early challenged by Nikolaus Pevsner’s impersonally comprehensive The Buildings of England. But the Betjeman/Piper contention, that the brain should not be disconnected from the eye and heart in such matters, was flatteringly endorsed by Pevsner’s close friend, Alec Clifton-Taylor, when he chose the Guides on Desert Island Discs

War encouraged romantic feeling and provided endless ruins. Kenneth Clark considered Piper “the ideal recorder of bomb damage” and commissioned him to be a home-based war artist. Pictures of the gutted Coventry Cathedral pushed Piper to the forefront of public awareness alongside Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland.  

His career shows a logical progression from medium to medium, from watercolour to firework displays. That he designed all Benjamin Britten’s major operas from 1946 onwards would alone assure his artistic place. Friendship with Britten led to Myfanwy writing three of his libretti, her chief claim to fame, although she was content to be a mother and hostess first and foremost. Marriage was “serious and final”. 

This did not exclude a “special relationship” with Clark, which Spalding treats with coy discretion. 

As the fashion for his pictures waned in the 1950s, Piper increasingly relied on “delegated art” — stage-designing complemented by stained-glass commissions undertaken with the much younger and Roman Catholic Patrick Reyntiens. Among the duo’s most sumptuous works are the major lights for Coventry Cathedral and Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral — claimed to be the largest stained-glass commission in the history of the Church. 

Printmaking, ceramics, fireworks (the Queen’s Silver Jubilee), tapestry, wallpaper, even Derbyshire well dressing, proved that “Pipers” could fit any medium. After some especially spectacular Piper fireworks, a guest told Myfanwy that she would never forget them. “You weren’t supposed to forget them,” came the reply. Gardening and flower pictures proved his envoi.

Spalding is an unapologetic Piper fan. She bridles at any criticism of her hero, even though the illustrations confirm for this reviewer what Douglas Cooper (and George VI: “You seem to have very bad luck with your weather, Mr Piper”) saw as a formulaic weakness to place style before content. But John Piper did more than his bit for “pleasing decay” and “decrepit glory”, which are at such a premium today; and Piper/Reyntiens stained-glass is assured its immemorial place.

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