I was at a dinner party in a smart house in London last week. In the upstairs drawing room sat a familiar image of a colourful, eerie church. It could only have been by one artist: John Piper (1903-1992).
“Years ago we were about to go out to buy a second hand car,” my host told me. “By chance I happened to look in The Spectator, and there was a picture of the church where we had married. I suggested to my wife we go and see it. I loved it, and said to my wife, ‘do we really need a car?’” And so they bought the painting, for £11,000, and a couple of pairs of walking shoes, forgoing the car.
Much of Piper’s art was inspired by Sussex and Kent. He became an artist in defiance of his father, who urged him to join the family firm of solicitors. He studied law for five dutiful years, but he never forgot his formative years cycling the lanes of the Weald and out to the coast, filling his “journey books” with drawings, maps and carefully captioned photographs.
He often returned to the area, Newhaven being a particular favourite painting spot. This provided inspiration in the thirties, when he boldly developed an abstract style that foreshadowed Jackson Pollock’s “splodges” by several decades.
Piper isn’t quite considered in the same league as Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud, but arguably Piper is a British modernist up there with the greats of the 20th century. With his depiction of historic architecture he has been called “art’s Pevsner”. His ruined churches, many bombed in the war, are particularly celebrated, with their spooky feeling of loss.
This exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery, following on from its excellent John Bratby show, forms part of the Gallery’s In Focus series, in which a work from the Jerwood Collection is taken as the starting point for a show, in this case Piper’s Beach and Star Fish, Seven Sister’s Cliff, Eastbourne, 1933-34, purchased in 2014.
It shows how he was influenced by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and the coastal paintings of Dieppe by Georges Braque.
In Focus: John Piper – An Eye for the Modern
Until 8 May, Jerwood Gallery, Rock-a-Nore Road,
Hastings Old Town TN34 3DW.
Art critic reviews Piper at sussexstyle.co.uk