John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: A Biography

ISBN : 9780198804826

Frances Spalding
624 Pages
189 x 246 mm
Pub date
Mar 2017
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This book is about a shared journey made by John and Myfanwy Piper who early on settled down in a small hamlet on the edge of the Chilterns, whence they proceeded to produce work which placed them centre stage in the cultural landscape of the twentieth century. Here, too, they fed and entertained many visitors, among them Kenneth Clark, John Betjeman, Osbert Lancaster, Benjamin Britten, and the Queen Mother. Their creative partnership encompasses not only a long marriage and numerous private and professional vicissitudes, but also a genuine legacy of lasting achievements in the visual arts, literature and music. Frances Spalding also sheds new light on the story of British art in the 1930s. In the middle of this decade John Piper and Myfanwy Evans (they did not marry until 1937) were at the forefront of avant-garde activities in England, Myfanwy editing the most advanced art magazine of the day and John working alongside Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and others. But as the decade progressed and the political situation in Europe worsened, they changed their allegiances, John Piper investigating in his art a sense of place, belonging, history, memory, and the nature of national identity, all issues that are very much to the fore in today's world. Myfanwy Piper is best known as 'Golden Myfanwy', Betjeman's muse and for her work as librettist with Benjamin Britten. John Piper was an extraordinarily prolific artist in many media, his fertile career stretching over six decades and involving him in many changes of style. Having been an abstract painter in the 1930s, he became best known for his landscapes and architectural scenes in a romantic style. This core interest, in the English and Welsh landscape and the built environment, developed in him a sensibility that took in almost everything, from gin palaces to painted quoins, from ruined cottages to country houses, from Victorian shop fronts to what is nowadays called industrial archeology. His capacious and divided sensibility made him defender of many aspects of the English landscape and the built environment, while in his art he became an heir of that great tradition encompassing Wordsworth and Blake, Turner, Ruskin, and Samuel Palmer. He was torn between the pleasures of an abstract language liberated from time and place and those embedded in the locale, in buildings, geography, and history. Today, this expansive contradictoriness seems quintessentially modern, his divided response finding an echo in our own ambivalence towards modernity. Both Pipers created what seemed to many observers an ideal way of life, involving children, friendships, good food, humour, the pleasures of a garden, work, and creativity. Running through their lives is a fertile tension between a commitment to the new and a desire to reinvigorate certain native traditions. This tension produced work that is passionate and experimental. 'Only those who live most vividly in the present', John Russell observed of John and Myfanwy Piper, 'deserve to inherit the past'.



Part I
1 John
2 'That's Painting!'
3 Stained Glass and Coastal Gaiety
4 Orchard's Angel

Part II
5 Going Modern
6 Axis
7 Abstract and Concrete
8 'Look, Stranger, at this island now'

Part III
9 New and shattered circumstances
10 Decrepit Glory, Pleasing Decay
11 'The Weather in Our Souls'
12 Fawley Bum

Part IV
13 War Artist
14 Stormy Weather
15 Renishaw and the Sitwells
16 Topographical Mania
17 Sly Liaisons
18 Stern Watching and Mysterious Sympathy

Part V
19 Return to Peace
20 Working for the Stage and with Britten
21 'A firm shape among shadows'
22 Cranko and Britten
23 The Turn of the Screw
24 Textiles, Mosaics, Murals, and early Stained Glass
25 Coventry and Cranks

Part VI
26 Ambiguous Venice
27 Dark Glasses at Evensong
28 Church Commissions
29 Owen Wingrave
30 Shell Guides
31 Pottery, Tapestries, and Fireworks
32 Death in Venice

Part VII
33 Deaths and Entrances
34 An English Garden
35 Myfanwy

About the author: 

Frances Spalding began writing on British art early in her career and rapidly became of leading voice in this field, writing extensively in newspapers, magazines and exhibition catalogues on this subject before publishing British Art since 1900, the first overview of twentieth-century British art which has been widely used in schools, colleges, and universities. She went to achieve renown as a biographer, with lives of Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, John Minton, Duncan Grant, Gwen Raverat, and of the poet Stevie Smith. She has also written a centenary history of the Tate and an introduction to Bloomsbury in the National Portrait Gallery's 'Insight' series. She is a popular speaker at festivals and other events.

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