Posts Tagged ‘Chichester Cathedral’

Art | John Piper: Man of the Cloth

Friday, March 11th, 2016

Air Motif , 1966
from Chichester Cathedral Tapestry

John Piper:
The Fabric of Modernism
Pallant House Gallery
Chichester | UK
12 March > 12 June 2016

John Piper photographed by Nicholas Sinclair, 2000

Try to bring to mind what a typical, domestic, post-war British fabric design looked like. The image inside your head, if any, will probably resemble one of John Piper’s screen-printed designs for Arthur Sanderson & Sons.

Now imagine how a typical Anglican Church minister (albeit off-duty) should look. Sallow, long in the face, with high cheekbones and large fleshy ears – even by middle age his hair has receded and turned white – your vision might easily be John Piper himself. In his later years, the pious look would become increasingly appropriate to his output, especially with regard to his work in textiles.

Born John Egerton Christmas Piper in 1903, after art school at Richmond and Kingston and a brief year at the Royal College of Art, he began his career as a landscape artist then, after a visit to Paris in 1933, turned to abstraction, producing paintings, prints and collages inspired by Picasso. By 1938, however, he had returned to representational painting. In the 1930s, in pursuit of his great love of architecture, he had worked with John Betjeman on the Shell County Guides, and having been accepted into the Anglican church in 1939, while working as an official war artist from 1940, he asked to be allowed to concentrate on bombed churches. That year he would arrive the morning after the air raid that destroyed medieval Coventry cathedral to record the scene for a series of haunting paintings. During the following decade, having his first exhibition in New York, providing decorations for the British Embassy in Rio de Janeiro, and supervising the design of Battersea Pleasure Gardens with Osbert Lancaster, Piper would achieve national and international fame.

Chiesa de Salute, 1959, issued 1960*
Screenprint on Sanderlin fabric,
made by Arthur Sanderson.
Private collection

Abstract, 1955
Screenprinted rayon.
Published by David Whitehead Ltd.
Private collection

The repeat patterns of his commercial fabric designs – often abstract, sometimes based around architectural themes and landscapes and also including churches – reflected all that was going on in his own life and work in the 1950s. His involvement with textiles wasn’t unique, among his artist contemporaries, Henry Moore and Edward Paolozzi dabbled in fabric design too. But perhaps the catholic mix of subject matter in Piper’s work that rendered it suitable for use in modern, as well as more traditional homes ensured the commercial success that made it ubiquitous.

In 1958 Piper would return to Coventry Cathedral – then under reconstruction by Sir Basil Spenceto design a stained-glass window for its baptistry. The ecclesiastical robes he had created in the early 1950s for the clergy to wear for services at Coventry, and for Chichester and St Paul’s cathedrals may be clearly influenced by those designed by Matisse for the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence in France, but also make reference to the ballet productions Piper was involved in in the 1940s, and for the series of operas by Benjamin Britten, which he worked on.

But religion went out of fashion in the free-loving 60s, and just as Piper was on the cusp of elevation to the immortal pantheon of great British artists, by sacrificing fame for faith, consciously or otherwise, he was perhaps unjustly relegated to the second tier. Piper’s first tapestry designs, however, produced in 1966 for Chichester Cathedral represent a gathering together of a lifetime’s worth of ideas, imagery and personal fervour and are amongst the most important examples of twentieth century religious art. They form the centrepiece of the exhibition John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism at Pallant House Gallery.

All works by John Piper, © The Piper Estate, except* image reproduced by kind permission of Arthur Sanderson, a wholly owned subsidiary of Abaris Holdings Ltd, owners of the original copyright.
All images courtesy Pallant House Gallery

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