John Piper in Kent and Sussex at the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne

By Richard Moss | 24 August 2011
an abstract painting featuring boats
John Piper, Boats on Shore (or Coast) (1933). Huddersfield Art Gallery© Estate of John Piper
Exhibition: John Piper in Kent and Sussex, Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, until September 25 2011

John Piper’s affection for Kent and Sussex goes back to his teenage years when, as the 17-year-old secretary of the Surrey Archaeology Society, he cycled the two counties filling his own guidebooks or "journey books" with maps, sketches and photographs.

At this tender age he had already developed a love of the England symbolised by crumbling churches and the rich historical, pastoral landscape found in the two southern counties.

Perhaps it is this Arcadian pre-industrial vision – together with his church paintings and love of old-fashioned guidebooks – that mark him out today as a traditionally British artist.

Towner's bright and thoughtful exhibition both confirms and contradicts this notion by charting a fascinating path through a development characterised by an extraordinary eclecticism and a sense of adventure.

Piper embraced everything from TV programmes and stage sets to ceramics and stained glass but in his early years, during the 1920s and 1930s, he absorbed the new ideas of the School of Paris artists, marvelled at the set designs of the Ballet Russes and became fascinated by the collages of Picasso.

The 100-odd pieces on show here reveal how he reconciled these and other "foreign" influences with the joyful Englishness he found in the architecture and landscapes of Kent and Sussex.

The first room, jauntily titled A Trip to the Seaside, references the 1936 BBC film of the same name. In it, Piper and his wife Myfanwy presented a quintessentially 1930s concoction of shipping forecasts, shots of Brighton pier, paintings by Paul Nash and imaginative constructions made of seaweed and stones.

This raw but vibrant melange of medium and materials is echoed by the paintings on the walls. Harbour sides are glimpsed through windows decorated with paper doilies and abstract collages are rich with the nautical imagery of boats, buoys, foresails and flagstaffs.

Custom House (1930) with its sombre mixture of oil and sand on canvas rubs shoulders with abstract figurative works like Beach Scene (1933) and String Figures (1934) which reveal flashes of Picasso and Léger.

Views of Seaford Head (1933) and Newhaven (1934) boast cliff faces constructed from the torn pages of the New Statesman and The Nation. Elsewhere, fragments of tobacco packets, manuscripts and blotting paper combine with ink and brush to conjure pub signs, beaches and clouds. 

an abstract composition
Abstract Composition (1936)
© Estate of John Piper
The range of styles is palpable. Take, for example, the pure abstraction of Sea Buildings (1938) and compare it with the delicate watercolour washes of Hamsey Church (1939). Less than a year separates these wildly different paintings.

One constant was the English landscape and architecture. They remained Piper’s obsession and by the 1940s he had toned down the avant garde visual language and returned to painting recognisable objects – albeit ones afflicted by rustic dilapidation.

An archive section offers a glimpse into how he encountered this world and includes examples of his work with John Betjeman on the Shell Guides.

There are also handmade travel guides, sketches, gouaches, notebooks and even his Hasselblad 120mm camera which he used to capture the timeless charms of southern England.

Returning to the paintings made after Piper had abandoned his forays into full abstraction, it's interesting to glimpse the trace signs of his former avant-garde leanings, buried beneath the foliage and the ruins of his favourite churches.

Visitors might also recognise in them the keen and often poetic visual language that he employed as a war artist capturing the ruins of blitzed Britain.

There are also set designs - ink and watercolour sketches for his collaborations with Benjamin Britten - and two stunning oils that capture the bleak yet beautiful landscape of Dungeness. These recall Constable or that other Piper favourite, JMW Turner.

The larger of the two is mounted in a frame that seems to have been hewn out of a piece of driftwood. 

The exhibition closes with his designs for stained glass windows including a large-scale cartoon for the window at the Church of St Peter’s, just down the road in Firle.

A homage to William Blake’s the Book of Job it returns us to an essentially Romantic vision of the English Arcadia. It makes for a pleasing conclusion to this gentle and inspiring sojourn through Kent and Sussex in the company of John Piper. 

More paintings from the exhibition:

an abstract collaged painting that uses paint and printed pages from a magazine to create a coastal scene with a beach, cliffs and a house
John Piper, Seaford Head (1933). Mascalls Gallery© Estate of John Piper
an abstract watercolour painting showing a figure reclining on a beach with a lighthouse and steamer in the distance
John Piper, Beach Scene, 1933. Private collection.© Estate of John Piper
a watercolour donminated by yellow washes showing the interior of a country church
John Piper, Hamsey Church, Sussex, 1939. Derby Museum and Art Gallery.© Estate of John Piper
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