John Piper: My Kind of Romantic

John Piper, Arbroath Abbey, 1988. Screenprint. Source.

Sorry Paul McCartney, but silly loves songs just make me want to hurl. But give me a Romantic (with a capital R) landscape, and I’m in heaven.

John Piper, Stonehenge, Wiltshire, 1981. Ink and wash. Source.

John Piper (1903-1992) was associated with the British variety of Neo-Romanticism, a term applied to a loose knit group of painters active from around 1930 to the mid-1950s (textbook dates for the movement nonewithstanding, Piper worked in this style until the end of his career.)

John Piper, Beach in Brittany, 1961-62. Lithograph. Source.

Inspired by such earlier Romantic visionaries as William Blake and Samuel Palmer, the Neo-Romantics also introduced elements of 20th century modernism into their work, to varying degrees.

John Piper. New Church, Romney Marsh, 1947. Black ink, watercolour, crayons, gouache. Source.

Piper had a special fondness for time-worn architecture, sure sign of a capital "R" Romantic. While still a youth he cycled round the Surrey countryside, sketching and photographing old churches for the creation of his own personal guidebooks.

John Piper, Terrington St Clement. Source.

 After a flirtation with abstraction, which he eventually discarded as "undernourished", Piper returned to representation, focusing on ruins and churches in a state of what he called "pleasing decay." Piper expert Frances Spalding explains: "Piper thought that buildings were like people, they had personalities and characters, and that like people, they should be allowed to both live and die." He was wary of restoration schemes that tidied away all signs of time's passage.

John Piper, Windsor Castle, 1941. Watercolour. Source.

By the late 1930s Piper's expressive vision of Britain's built heritage had caught the eye of Sir Kenneth Clark, who arranged for Piper to paint views of Windsor Castle as part of the Recording Britain project. The artist's trademark moody skies, the perfect complement to his eerily deserted monuments, caused a bemused King George VI to remark, "You seem to have very bad luck with your weather."

John Piper, Coventry Cathedral November 15, 1940. Oil on canvas. Source.

Kenneth Clark was also responsible for securing Piper a position as an Official War Artist. When Piper arrived at Coventry after the bombing, the town's 13th century cathedral was still on fire. His haunting images capture the sublime terror of this tragic event in a manner that equals the power of J.M.W. Turner's visions of historic London buildings in flames (it's no surprise to learn that Turner was one of Piper's great inspirations.)

English Scottish And Welsh Landscape. 1700- 1860. Lithographs by John Piper. Published 1945. Source.

John Piper, Chiesa del Salute, Textile Design for Sanderson, 1960. Source.
John Piper, Set Design for “Job”, 1948. Source.

Although best known today for his prints and paintings, Piper worked in many media, including designs for stained glass, book illustrations, textiles and stage sets. In 1948 he designed a production of the dance work, Job, which was inspired by William Blake’s 1825 illustrations to the Book of Job. The flickering flames of Hell are borrowed from Blake, while the dramatic sky recalls the work of Blake's disciple, Samuel Palmer, both artists dear to Piper's heart.

John Piper, Gedney, Lincolnshire: a Tower in the Fens, from A Retrospect of Churches, 1964. Lithograph. Source.

Throughout his career Piper was an avid printmaker, and one of his key achievements in this vein was the 1964 portfolio, A Retrospect of Churches, 25 lithographs printed by Curwen Studio. Piper’s deft handling of texture, his delightfully calligraphic line and dramatic use of contrast and colour give these works the highly individual character that is recognizably Piper's, while at the same time capturing the essence of the buildings in question - the result of the artist's deep-seated love of his subject.

John Piper, Abbeville, St Wolfrun, 1972. Screenprint. Source.

Piper didn't generally include people in his images, and for me that's one of their appealing points. As Frances Spalding says in the film, John Piper: An Empty Stage, "People are only ever incidentally in landscape. They pass through it but they’re not part of it. They’re transitory. I think he was after something that is there today, and in one hundred years time it will be there.” In this fast-paced world we live in today, something not quite so fleeting is a welcome respite.