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John Piper’s acute observations

Piper in Print by Alan Powers, Hugh Fowler-Wright et al.

If you listed the AR’s most significant contributors in its 114-year history, one would surely be the artist and photographer John Piper. He arrived in the magazine in October 1936 with a piece on English Romanesque sculpture, enhanced by close-up photographs of fonts whose bas-relief figures might evoke Picasso or Brancusi. Such continuity between past and present was one of Piper’s common themes.

But above all Piper drew attention to the overlooked. His eclectic AR subjects included country shops, flint walls, ‘the nautical style’ and the British pub, while he happily illustrated colleagues’ features too - such as, a John Betjeman essay on Nonconformist chapels.

A prolific painter and print-maker almost until his death in 1992, Piper also designed stained glass, tapestries and theatre sets, but architecture and topography were paramount. ‘My aims in painting are to express a personal love of country and architecture,’ he said, which also sums up his 40-year involvement with the Shell Guides to English counties and his articles in the AR.
Published in a limited edition of 384 copies (hence the high price), Piper in Print is a well-illustrated survey of the books, magazines and ephemera that feature Piper’s work. It profits from having the architectural historian Alan Powers as an essayist, given his authority on British culture in Piper’s time.

Piper’s photos on the book’s endpapers give a better clue to his sensibility than the cover does. Dwelling on the eroded face and drapery of a sculpted stone figure, they reveal his taste for things that or mutilated by time, as well as his eye for an eloquent detail. But Piper also stood back to take a broad view of a place or landscape, and among his graphics are sweeping panoramas of Stowe gardens with its temples, lake and Palladian bridge.

Several pages are devoted to one of Piper’s best works, the Brighton Aquatints (1939), while the guidebooks get an essay to themselves. Piper’s Shell Guide to Oxon (1938) is a classic, and in its gazetteer he can encapsulate a site in a sentence. ‘Ledwell is a place of old stone walls and bedraggled farmyards; it has a manor with enormous decrepit elm trees.’

Conveying just how broad Piper’s interests were, the book partly conceals his limitations as an artist. When seen in quantity, his paintings and prints can seem quite cursory and formulaic, relying too much on chiaroscuro and often more theatrical than insightful. Though Piper sought to capture the ‘spirit of place’, the places might be interchangeable, given his mannerisms.

When Buildings and Prospects, a selection of Piper’s articles from the AR and elsewhere, appeared in 1948, historian John Summerson said: ‘Piper’s genius is the genius of the eye. Simply by looking and noting he has presented his own and a younger generation with a new excitement in landscape and architecture.’ And that remains a fair assessment. It was Piper’s eye as much as his artistry that ensured the appreciation (sometimes even the preservation) of much that was unsung. Andrew Mead

+ A celebrated eye for detail
- Masks the extent of artistic technique that tended towards the formulaic

Piper in Print

Authors: Alan Powers, Hugh Fowler-Wright et al.

Publisher: Artists’ Choice Editions, 2010

Price: £96

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