JOHN PIPER CH died 20 years ago (28 June), and there have been a number of exhibitions planned across England to mark the anniversary, including one earlier this spring at Blenheim Palace, which celebrated the Duke of Marlborough’s commissioning of Piper for a suite of studies of Blenheim in 1984.
The current show has been staged by the Friends of Dorchester Abbey, which is more than fitting, since the artist was an original member of the charity, which was founded in 1959 to help revive the fortunes of the abbey and to protect its rich heritage. In 1973, Piper donated a watercolour of the east end of the church, with its great Jesse window, to the PCC, signed copies of which were sold to raise further income for the church.
Another exhibition is further downstream, in the River & Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames (until 8 October). It showcases 30 Pipers from the stunning private collection built up over a dozen years by the late Michael Gyselynck, who had lived near by at Shiplake, and who died in 2002.
In his extensive entry in Who’s Who, Piper always first recorded his membership of the Oxford Diocesan Advisory Committee, a position he held for 37 years. He saw this as part of his Christian service as a layman. As a young artist from a Nonconformist background, he had been attracted to the Church of England and encouraged to think about church commissions by the Revd Victor Kenna, who came as an assistant curate to St Martin’s, in Epsom, where the Pipers lived.
Despite marrying a second time after divorce, at a time when such matters occasioned as much social as ecclesiastical disapprobation, this remained his natural home after his baptism and confirmation in 1940. Latterly, he found that the pressure towards modern-language rites and the admission of women to holy orders put a strain on his affection.
Three bishops, and members of Piper’s own family were among those who turned up for the opening of the exhibition at Dorchester Abbey. This seemed doubly appropriate, since the exhibition was the idea of the current Bishop of Dorchester, and the Piper family have been ever generous with loans.
This exhibition concentrates on Piper’s love affair with the Church and with churches, especially his realisation and recreation of ecclesiastical architecture, whether of Romanesque carving in Chichester or in France or of Victorian Gothic. It contains vestments, designs for stained glass and paintings, photographs, and sketches of individual churches.
So, for instance, his study for the mosaic Risen Christ in the House at Emmaus (c.1958) for St Paul’s, Harlow, is clearly inspired by Romanesque sculpture. Regrettably, this wonderful oil sketch has been mounted in such a way that it is not possible to view the study of a Welsh Nonconformist chapel on the reverse of the canvas. The three figures dance across a striped background of primary colours. The little painting (24 x 20 in.) is complete in itself as a testament to the power of sculpture.
Perhaps an even more telling example is his 1966 watercolour and gouache study of the Head of Christ from the 12th-century Lazarus sculpture in Chichester Cathedral. This work on paper has a sombre aspect and profound stillness in it which is more than the equal of the sculpture on which it is based.
My ordination as deacon 26 years ago took place in this abbey, and I recall finding the sheer height of the building overwhelming as we entered in solemn procession. To tremendous effect, this space at the western end is now dominated by the full-size cartoon for the Christ in Majesty window (the Hospital of St John, Lichfield). This proved to be the last joint work of Piper and his chosen glass-maker Patrick Reyntiens (1984).
Clothed in purple, the King of Kings stands in a bejewelled mandorla between two green seraphs, who blow their horns loudly. Behind the Christ is a deep rich sky with the empty cross reaching out to the sun and moon. The surrounding panels include the zoomorphic symbols of the four Evangelists. St Mark’s lion playfully paws the air, while the bull looks out, warily, just as bulls do. A beady-eyed eagle and an elderly bearded angel complete their number.
The cartoon has been in part conserved for this exhibition by a member of staff at the Berkshire Record Office. This had taken 160 hours; we are talking Fablon and masking tape, which seemed very Blue Peter and somewhat homespun. Hanging it here allows the abbey to retain its own majesty, and does not take away from the Jesse window.
The first joint effort undertaken by Piper and Reyntiens was windows for Oundle School Chapel (1954-56). This exhibition includes the trial piece (the head of two figures of Christ) from that commission 30 years earlier. Common to both is a density of colour which shows how whole-heartedly Piper understood medieval art.
In his autobiography, Fragments of a Life (1990), the priest and professor Moelwyn Merchant recounts how he helped Piper with the ecclesiology and theology of these windows, and with other windows, at St Andrew’s, Plymouth (1957-62, 1963, 1968), and at Eton College (1955-62), where the windows linked four Johannine Signs with Parables.
He also proudly claimed that he had provided an outline sketch for the 1964 reredos tapestry at Chichester Cathedral, but in this Professor Merchant’s memory may be at fault. He claims that he had “indicated a large design in the central panel for the Trinity: a circle, a cross and a wing of fire, the three held together by the intersection of an equilateral triangle”.
Piper’s first cartoon was roundly criticised by an archdeacon for not including a symbol of God the Father. It was left to Piper’s more reliable clerical friend, Kenna, who, like Merchant, was working near Exeter, to resolve the issue in January 1965 with the inclusion of a circle of white light to represent God the Father.
The design on show here (from Pallant House) is the earlier, theologically dubious one. On one of his many visits to Fawley Bottom, where the Pipers lived, near Henley, Merchant was immensely pleased to find his sketch outline drawing for it indicating a large design for the Trinity pinned up in the studio. Also on show is woollen tapestry trial panel for the head of St Luke’s bull.
At the centre of the exhibition is a case containing vestments that Piper designed and had made for the cathedral chapters of Coventry and St Paul’s, as well as Chichester. The high-mass sets for Coventry (1962), taken alongside the commission for the great baptistery window, put Piper’s work at the heart of the new cathedral. Fifty years on, I hope that in this anniversary year the Dean and Chapter will make a point of wearing them regularly.
Less readily usable, however, is the splendid Thai-silk cope for St Paul’s, which is one of six made by the celebrated Louis Gosse for Advent in 1974. The design incorporates a tongue of flame in red, cream, and black on a royal-blue background, with more than a hint of the tailfin of a BA jet about it. Maybe this flight of fancy is what attracted the then Dean, the New Zealander Martin Sullivan.
It must have been one of the last commissions for liturgical vestments in the old “Sarum” colours. Blue was, according to many liturgical specialists in such sartorial matters, never properly the seasonal colour for Advent, but was widely provided for by some vestment-makers. This cope looks almost pristine, as if it was consigned to the cope chest within months of a decision to abandon the older liturgical use.
Within the exhibition space itself, the first item on display is a sketch of Blakeney Parish Church which the 18-year-old Piper drew on holiday (it is dated 14 August 1921), much in the style of the Highways and Byways series. The last is a remarkable self-portrait (1988), in which a gaunt artist next to a brightly lit church tower. Despite his noted good humour, this artist could do stern rather well.
The stained-glass commissions at Bledlow Ridge (1968), Pishill (1969), Nettlebed (1970), Sandford St Martin (1974), Turville (a wonderfully laid-back hand holding a lily for the annunciation, made in 1975), Wolvercote, and Fawley (1976) all show Reyntiens interpreting Piper effortlessly. The memorial window to Sir John Betjeman at Farnborough, and, within the Oxford ring road, the last ever design of Piper’s at St Mary’s, Iffley, are by other glass-makers who speak with the same voice.
Photographs of these Oxford diocesan windows are included, and a helpful trail has been compiled for a leaflet by Hannah Woollen. My one regret is that this, and the exhibition, both omit Piper’s significant contribution to designing the chapel for Nuffield College in 1961.
Set in the roof, and often overlooked, the chapel is remarkable for the five stained-glass windows (Reyntiens again, at his loosest), and for the fact that Piper designed the holy table as well, the only time, I think, that he had this privilege. Earlier this year in February, a 50th-anniversary service was held there, at which members of the Piper family again had joined the Bishop of Oxford.
“John Piper and the Church” is at Dorchester Abbey, Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, until 21 June. Phone 01865 340 007.