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Playing the Piper

24 March 2016

Nicholas Cranfield reflects on the colourful mastery of John Piper

© The Piper Estate

Master of colour: John Piper’s preliminary design for a Chichester Cathedral tapestry, 1965

Master of colour: John Piper’s preliminary design for a Chichester Cathedral tapestry, 1965

GEORGE BELL had been Bishop of Chichester for more than a quarter of a century when Walter Hussey was nominated Dean in 1955. It was an acute appointment, and played to Bishop Bell’s strength as one who believed in sacramental aesthetics as an enhancement to the experience of God.

Hussey had succeeded his father as Vicar of St Matthew’s, Northampton, in 1937, and set about ensuring the beauty of holiness in his home parish. At Chichester, he brought with him a bevy of artists willing to work in the belief that “Art of a high standard can and should be offered to God and in the offering symbolise all that should be offered by mankind”, as he wrote in 1977.

The millionaire dean approached John Piper in 1962 with a view to his providing a work of art for the chapel of St Thomas and St Edmund. That first project came to nothing, but the following year, the architect Basil Spence and sculptor Henry Moore, both of whom had worked with Piper on the new cathedral at Coventry, persuaded the dean to ask him to decorate the 16th-century screen behind the High Altar at Chichester, making a bold statement at the heart of the cathedral.

His first plans, to paint the seven panels in enamel or to use fibre-glass, suggested the short-sightedness of 1960s’ modernism. Fortunately, the artist came to the idea of an imposing tapestry, and the 50th anniversary of its installation occasions this sharply observed exhibition at Pallant House.

Designs for the completed tapestry, as well as references to figures from the earlier stained-glass windows in the chapel at Oundle School, Northamptonshire, hold the central space in Simon Martin’s exhibition.

Visitors to Pallant House Gallery should ensure that they leave enough time, not only to see other works by Piper currently in Room 9 (some are from the permanent collection, others loaned by the directors of Gagosian gallery), but also to go to the cathedral to see the tapestry itself.

At its installation, not all were convinced. Men refused to kneel before it to make their communion, and one feckless canon pointedly wore dark glasses to avoid the glare. Fifty years on, the work seems as much at home in the cathedral as are the early 12th-century carved panels depicting Lazarus, or the romantic Arundel tomb.

Piper was no stranger to designing for fabric, and the exhibition, which is the first to concentrate entirely on this medium, begins with the silk scarves he designed in the 1940s, and curtains and fabrics he later provided for Sandersons and other leading upholsterers. The 1950s and ’60s attracted a burst of consumerist culture, and the predominantly monochrome world of post-war austerity was swept aside in a swirl of colour that reached into the homes of many who could not afford to buy “art”.

Piper reworked painted images, observing how they fitted the folds of material and the fall of a drape, incorporating them in repeat patterns so that, once hung, they appeared as abstract works of art in their own right. Testimony, if such be needed, of the artist’s ability in a range of techniques to present his indigenous aesthetic for the neo-romantic grounded in modernism.

Later, Piper turned to wool-pile tapestries, some of them woven in Namibia, to serve as carpets and wall decorations. In 1988, Barclays de Zoete Wedd commissioned a rug, based on a still-life of flowers in a vase, for its Lombard Street headquarters; here it is paired with a design from the five-metre-wide tapestry of the Five Gates of the City of London, a commission for the insurance company Sedgwick Forbes plc. That 1975 tapestry is now displayed in the London Guildhall Art Gallery, but the exhibition includes one of the 1978 screenprints of it that Sedgwick’s circulated to its international offices.

The rocky outcrops of Glyder Fawr, the façade of the Venetian church of Santa Maria della Salute (from a painting once owned by Princess Margaret), and a painting of Sheffield Cathedral are all transformed for the material world of contemporary interiors. Sheffield plays out in at least 15 colours as Piper meets Jackson Pollock. The textures in his paintings are articulated in such a way that they translate into thread effortlessly.

Other textiles designed by Piper are being shown at the Bohun Gallery, Henley-on-Thames, from 9 April to 4 June 2016, alongside a selection of his paintings, watercolours, and ceramics. This exhibition follows a similarly successful show in 2014. A major retrospective will be held this summer in London, at the Portland Gallery (23 June-22 July), which has here loaned a 1960 watercolour and collage. That exhibition will launch the long-awaited publication by David Fraser Jenkins on the artist.


“John Piper: The fabric of modernism” is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 12 June. Phone 01243 774557.


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