John Piper (1903-92)
A prime example of neo-Romantic work, the architectural details in this work are rendered with virtuosic artistry by Piper. Using the naturally tawny canvas to mimic the warm colour of the local stone, Piper paints with great economy to describe the hall itself...
John Piper is one of only a few artists within the history of British art who was capable of capturing in paint the character and emotive presence of old buildings and monuments. He gave these large, looming landmarks a personality, and transmitted through paint an intensity of character few painters have since managed to achieve.
From an early age, John Piper had had an eye for the buildings of the countryside and as a child he collected guidebooks such as the Highways and Byways series. Inspired by their evocative descriptions, he would return home and create guidebooks of his own, kindling a passion that was never to leave him and that was eventually to gain the artist professional employment.
After a brief period working in his family’s legal firm as an articled clerk, Piper enrolled at the Richmond College of Art, where he met his first wife, Eileen Holding. In 1928, he joined the Royal College of Arts but, fiercely independent, quickly became disillusioned by their Schools’ lack of interest in modern French art. Instead, as he had learned to play the piano by ear alone, Piper decided to refine his talents under his own tutelage. He copied Cezanne in the Tate, went to Paris, where saw Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and was deeply taken by Picasso’s cubist period, Alexander Calder’s mobiles and the colourful abstract works of Piet Mondrian. Having found his voice as a largely abstract painter – although one who painted with a palette inspired by Medieval stained glass – Piper’s talent was quickly recognised by Ben Nicholson, who admitted the younger artist into the Seven and Five Society, a club that promoted abstract art.
Of still more important to Piper’s career were the acquaintances that he made in 1937. Through the editor of the Architectural Review, Piper met journalist James Richards, who then introduced him to the illustrator, Osbert Lancaster, and – significantly – to the poet and architectural critic, John Betjeman. Betjeman, deeply impressed by Piper’s work, commissioned the artist to write and make photography for the Shell Guide to Oxfordshire, the start of a long and fruitful partnership. It was through this circle that Piper met and became infatuated with Myfanwy Evans, whom he eventually married.
Piper’s most powerful works came following the outbreak of war in 1939. Having happened to be in the City of Coventry on the night that it was bombed in 1940, he made a series of works that recorded the still-smoking shell of the building. Concurrent with developments in the war, his style underwent a marked progression. Following his 1942-3 series of watercolours of Windsor Castle – commissioned by no less a figure than Kenneth Clark – he entered a stylistic phase that Betjeman described as “neo-Romantic”. Defined by his use of vibrant colours and attention to architectural detail, Piper’s neo-Romantic phase saw him reach his artistic maturity.
In the years that followed, Piper received a series of important commissions that reflected his status as one of Britain’s most significant artistic practitioners. A gifted artist in many media, he worked in textiles, photography, printing techniques, and as a set designer for the operas of Benjamin Britten. Among his most noted achievements as a public artist were, however, his mosaics. These he executed for a range of patrons including, most poignantly, the trustees of the new Coventry Cathedral, the ruins of whose predecessor he had memorialised for posterity.
Described by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘easily the grandest mansion of its date in the county, Sutton Scarsdale – built 1724-9 – was designed for Nicholas, 4th Earl of Scarsdale by the local mason Francis Smith and was in the opinion of another historian Smith’s finest work, an ‘essay in the heroic grand manner’. Like the 1700-3 west front of the nearby Chatsworth House, designed by William Talman, the façade is controlled by the deployment of a giant order of pilasters that are articulated as half columns in its pedimented centre. The influence of other contemporaries such as Thomas Archer and James Gibbs can be detected in Smith’s design. Yet, Smith by no means plagirises in this performance. Employing a Corinthian order, banded rustication, and corner pavilions, Smith introduces a sense of ornamentalism and movement that marks the building out as one of exceptional originality.
When the 4th Earl died unmarried in 1736, the hall passed through the hands of several purchasers before being acquired by Richard Arkwright junior, son of the famed industrialist of the same name. Possessed of his father’s commercial alacrity, Arkwright made a fortune by further realising the commercial potential inherent in Arkwright the elder’s inventions. His wealth at his death, which amounted to the vast sum of £1,000,000, had made him one of the wealthiest men in the country. Sadly, however, his heirs lacked his commercial sense and by 1919 Sutton Scarsdale was in a perilous state of disrepair. Its owner, William Arkwright, a dog breeder, sold the hall to demolition men for scrap. Gutted, rooms demonstrating the hall’s sumptuous interiors were sent far afield, across the Atlantic to the U.S.A., where they remain in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art at the Huntingdon Library, California. Yet, the demolition teams never came and the ruined – yet still magnificent – shell of the house was left to rot until in 1946 when it was purchased by Sir Osbert Sitwell, who left it to the nation.
Piper visited Sutton Scarsdale on 15 November 1942, as recorded in his diary:
“Day beginning with fog and ending with a nineteenth-century sunset. Sun a fireball in the fog, and Renshaw rising from ground mist, only top story visible… Burnt out grass, colourless. Midland refuse tips and blackened trees at their best in the disappearing mist.
To Bolsover: as wonderful as could be, commanding the fog-soaked colliery sodden landscape…To Sutton Scarsdale, through Arkwrighsttown. Curious slightly suburban atmosphere of Sutton Scarsdale, owing probably to its last business-man (colliery manager) owner. Dark, reddish, pinkish, but not rich in colour and not light and pale and sky-ridden like Bolsover. Becoming very ruinous.”
A prime example of neo-Romantic work, the architectural details in this work are rendered with virtuosic artistry by Piper. Using the naturally tawny canvas to mimic the warm colour of the local stone, Piper paints with great economy to describe the hall itself. Framing it with an agitated sky and a lawn of startlingly-vibrant greens, Pipers conveys a sense of the eerie and lonely effect of the ruin’s emptiness.
 Piper, J., in Ingrams, R and Piper, J. 1983. Piper’s Places: John Piper in England and Wales. London: Chatto and Windus. p.102