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NEO-ROMANTIC LANDSCAPES, ENGLISH CHURCHES & ARCHITECTURE IN A WARTIME SKETCHBOOK

John Piper
A remarkably rich wartime sketch-book in which John Piper recorded his 1943 summer tour of Devon and Cornwall in the company of Geoffrey Grigson,… Read more
Published in 1943 by Unpublished.
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NEO-ROMANTIC LANDSCAPES, ENGLISH CHURCHES & ARCHITECTURE IN A WARTIME SKETCHBOOK by John Piper

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A remarkably rich wartime sketch-book in which John Piper recorded his 1943 summer tour of Devon and Cornwall in the company of Geoffrey Grigson, sketched Welsh landscapes as well as the Victorian villas and churches of the English Midlands while he stayed Renishaw Hall, home of his friends Edith and Osbert Sitwells at Renishaw Hall. Piper’s sketches include churches in Exeter and West Ogwell in Devon, Lackington (later worked-up into an illustration to Betjeman’s Guide to English Parish Churches) and Hemington in Leicestershire. From Cornwall Piper has sketched a ruin that would evolve into his 1943 ‘farmyard chapel’ aquatint at Botallack and there are around a dozen sketches and watercolours of Piper’s beloved Victorian villas, soon to be the subject of his collaboration with J M Richards in Castles on the Ground. Alongside the sketching, note-taking and train times, Piper also includes reading notes relating to Ruskin’s Stones of Venice. Almost all of Piper’s archive went to the Tate Gallery making this a rarity on the open market.

PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION Green cloth-effect paper over boards (23.5x15.5cm), spattered with paint, with a now-loose elastic closure band and a pencil sleeve. The sketchbook has the label of the London stationer, C Robertson and Co ‘Sketch Book Hand Made Water Colour Paper’, priced in pencil ‘5/8’ with a pencilled note in Piper’s hand opposite relating to his friend the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner. The sketch book’s pages are of thick wove paper, designed to take water-colour, with a line of perforations 1cm from the gutter, similar to Piper’s other notebooks that Piper used for sketching in the field (see Plates 76/77, Piper’s Places, 1983). The manuscript comprises 21 leaves, one inserted drawing and one inserted postcard, with a similar number of stubs where pages have been removed - two of which have residue of black wash, similar to extant watercolour landscape sketches that survive in the sketchbook. Very much work in progress, the sketchbook records several facets of Piper’s practice in 3 pages of pencil drawings; 7 pages of pen and watercolour wash, 12 pages of ink drawings and 5 pages of notes - 28 pages in total, with 14 blanks - mostly the versos of the more substantial watercolours.

PROVENANCE: given by John Piper to Orde Levinson, friend and author of The Prints of John Piper: A Catalogue Raisonne, 1923-1991.

NARRATIVE: WEST COUNTRY The first part of the sketch-book records Piper’s July 1943 trip to the west country and into Cornwall that he took with Geoffrey Grigson. The sketchbook starts in Devon ‘between Torbryan and Denbury’ where Piper sketched, annotated and watercoloured a late Georgian house; continuing a mile up the road to the church at West Ogwell which is the subject of an ink sketch with extensive architectural annotation: ‘dark box pews pitch pine (mostly removed) Jac.[obean] pulpit....’ In Exeter Piper visited 6 of the city churches, particularly enjoying ‘Holy Trinity. v fine wedding-cake W. front with portico & elaborate cupola (ogee) the whole painted pale grey..’ and opposite these descriptions he made a carefully worked ink sketch of a blank arcade of niches, each with its urn and surmounted by a stone coat of arms. Below his church notes (recto), Piper has jotted down train (or perhaps bus) times from Exeter to Polperro and Looe in Cornwall. Once in Polperro Piper sketched a house on ‘Meadow Terrace’, adding additional annotation in orange crayon. The first of the sketchbook’s watercolours follows this sketch, depicting a shower of rain over a coastal outcrop - perhaps from the south Cornish coastline near Polperro. Piper and Grigson’s journey west reached its furthest point with two ink sketches of Hall Place, Botallack. The first of these is an exterior view which is a preparatory sketch for his aquatint completed in the same year (Hall Place, Botallack, Levinson 29), a sketchy rendering with three annotations and on the following leaf an internal view of the same building. These are the first of the ruined buildings to appear in this sketchbook - a major wartime preoccupation for Piper. At this period Piper essayed a series of sketches, paintings and aquatints of ‘farmyard chapels’ and even thought of doing a book on the subject as examples of what he called ‘pleasing decay’ - old buildings put to a different use (Ingrams/ Piper p95). On his sketch of the interior of Hall Place, Piper notes ‘all dark except l[igh]t from door. Dim ochrish brown’, noting the hanging ‘sacks’ in the space. Three ink and watercolour wash full-page images follow, presumed to be Cornish scenes, in landscape format: a rocky path(?) a woodland scene, looking through closely spaced tree trunks and a hilly landscape with a church tower and copse atop the nearest rise in the land. One more ink drawing of a ruin (again presumed to be in Cornwall) finishes this sequence; both annotations to this ramshackle building refer to the presence at the base of its walls of ‘paler, richer brown dung’.

LONDON & MIDLANDS At this point the notebook moves to London and central England, presumably images from later in the same year. First is a sketch of a lost Regency villa in London, annotated in pencil ‘Heriot. St NW5’ - probably Heriot Square in Camden, now demolished, followed by a pair of semi-derelict cottages and a villa, overleaf, in Donington which begins a mini-sequence of 4 watercolours and ink sketches of the same double-fronted late Georgian building followed by a pair of semi-detached Victorian villas, tipped in at right angles with tap, ‘Long Eaton, Notts’. Shortly afterwards Piper has jotted down train and bus times from St Pancras to Long Eaton and on to Castle Donnington and ‘Renishaw 6.30’ - the home of the Sitwell family where he stayed for weeks at time during the war years and painted the Hall more than a dozen times as well a making these sketching expeditions to neighbouring towns and villages. These sketches seem certain to be related to his trips north to visit the Sitwells.

WALES The first Welsh image to appear in the book is a half-page pencil sketch of a roof elevation at Festiniog in Wales (possibly a railway station?) which is alongside a villa from Stratfield Mortimer in Berkshire. there follow two full page ink sketches and a full page of notes about the interior of Lackington Church in Leicestershire which would prove particularly fertile territory for Piper as he reworked these sketches as an illustration for John Betjeman’s Introduction to the Collins Guide to English Parish Churches (1958) as an example of what Betjeman labels ‘A medieval church with Renaissance altar furnishings...’ (Betjeman, p35)

RUSKIN: Piper’s enthusiasm for John Ruskin is evident in half a page of notes on ‘7 Lamps of Arch.[itecture]’ which draw attention to ‘surface deceit. p80 (gen. ppls good)’, ‘Good rhetoric about Blank Walls and ‘Mildewed forwardness of the suburban villa 327’ and a favourite topic, ‘Restoration 353 et seq’. (Frances Spalding notes Piper’s wartime reading of Ruskin and its impact on ‘his thinking about the built environment’ A pencil sketch of Hemington Church (near Lockington, above) follows the Ruskin notes and then a series of unresolved Welsh sketches, one of them a mountain landscape scene with a lake in the foreground which may be Snowdonia. More worked out is Piper’s final annotated sketch in the book which is a view of a village in Powys in south Wales: ‘Ystradfellte’, noting ‘These much paler features’, the greys of the church tower and ‘blue grey’ of the ‘Slate slab (drab)’ rooftops.


Full details

Added under Manuscript
Publisher Unpublished
Date published 1943
Subject 1 Manuscript
Product code 8495


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