25. St Giles' House, Summerhouse, by John Piper

by Dr Jennifer Johnson – 11 February 2021
Dr Jennifer Johnson looks into the composition of an artwork featuring a less well-known part of St John's
John Piper Summer House.jpg John Piper (1903-1992), St Giles’ House, Summerhouse, 1987, watercolour and pastel

John Piper’s watercolour of the summerhouse at St Giles’ House is typical of his composite works that bring together architectural detail, weather, a clear sense of place, and combine watercolour with interjections of mixed media – as can be seen in the pastel marks in the hedge on the left. That this is a sketch is suggested by the relatively underworked nature of the piece as a whole – in comparison to similar pieces by Piper, albeit several decades earlier (see for example All Saints Chapel, Bath, 1941), there is less further interrogation of the subject in pen and the sky in particular is left loosely painted. What is interesting here is that the finer detail of the ionic capitals and the dome of the summerhouse are all but dwarfed by the treatment in broad brushstrokes of watercolour such as the hedge and stone wall, and the unnuanced roof that extends to the right. Similarly, although the colour of the summerhouse coincides with the Cotswold sandstone of the building behind, the rough texture of the latter looms over the summerhouse in contrast to the refined lines of the dome of the summerhouse – it is a combination of traditions, something that would have appealed strongly to Piper. The dome of the summerhouse is thought to be based on James Gibb’s 1734 model for the stone dome he designed for the Radcliffe Camera, and Piper’s depiction here emphasizes both the materialities and histories that emanate from this small space within Oxford. The space is itself an illustration, and Piper takes this up, translating it into detail and affective space. However, the relative diminution of the subject in this painting has a curious effect on the composition – on the one hand, the summerhouse is cocooned within the garden that houses it, and on the other the composition fragments around it into quartered patches of hedge, sky, roof and wall; divisions exacerbated by the strong separate colours of each part.

Piper, along with artists such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland belonged to a generation of artists whose work between the wars and post-war have shaped the British imagination – and especially the envisioning of the British landscape. Deliberate projects shaped this influence, including, for Piper, his contribution of illustrations to the Shell Guides to the British Counties, published in 1934 and edited by the poet John Betjemen. Piper was then involved with Kenneth Clark’s ‘Recording Britain’ scheme, founded in 1939. This scheme was designed to capture images of Britain’s architectural heritage which was now under threat by war. Inherent in this was a pending sense of loss that was also associated by a certain Neo-Romantic resistance to the industrial. These works – as had the Shell Guides – returned to eighteenth-century ideas of the picturesque, which in Britain had concentrated on the ‘pictured experience’ of the local landscape and an almost fetishized approach to architectural and organic topographical details.  (Oak trees get a particular attention in the work of writer William Gilpin (1724-1804) who published writings and sketches from tours of Britain and, perhaps most influentially, Three essays: On Picturesque beauty; On Picturesque travel; and on sketching landscape (1792)).

However, it is a mistake to see Piper only within this often-parochial mode. Not only did he work in theatre design as well as ceramics, print-making, and a host of collaborative projects, but he was also an advocate of International Modernism in the 1930s alongside constructionist painters such as Ben Nicholson, and exhibited with the Seven and Five Society. In works such as Abstract I (1935) Piper embraces geometric form and inherits from Cubism an interest in the arrangement of these forms within the flattened space of the canvas. Although he turned away from abstraction, writing to Nicholson that he needed to find a more adequate form of expression for landscape, Piper remained influenced and enthusiastic about developments in contemporary art such as collage and construction. In particular, his works depicting archaeological sites (see The Forum (1961)) use a wholly modern mark-making and shifting temporality in the accumulation of images they bring together to create works that explicitly engage with the relation of the past and present.

By the 1980s, when the watercolour of the summer house at St Giles’ House was made, something of a revival of interest in Piper’s work was happening. In the climate of object-oriented abstractions and conceptual art in the preceding decades, his work had seemed archaic. Piper’s presence in various exhibitions spoke to how tricky he was to categorize as a painter – and how institutions tended to place him exclusively in particular camps. At the Royal Academy’s 1987 show British Art in the 20th Century, only his highly abstract work was shown, while in 1988 he was a central figure in the Barbican’s exhibition Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain, 1935-1955. In particular at this time, a young Marxist critic, Peter Fuller, championed Piper, and – perhaps counter-intuitively – his claims for the importance of tradition and imagination. Fuller felt that there was a crisis in art, and in society, and that an imaginative connection with the past in response to the ‘visible present’ was one way out of the crisis.

However, from around 1987 onwards, Piper was experiencing the beginnings of a mental decline that would see him give up painting altogether in 1989. Ironically, as Frances Spalding has noted, as the structures of some his subjects began to give way a startling freedom emerged in his painterly practice as his skills in the application of paint in itself took over.[1] Something of this can be seen in the St Giles’ sketch with its energetic brush-work, but even as past and present press upon each other as so often in Piper’s work, despite the bright sky, there is a forlornness in the enclosed empty space of the summerhouse.

[1] See Frances Spalding, John Piper:  Myfanwy Piper: lives in art (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2009)

Jennifer Johnson 250x250Dr Jennifer Johnson, Junior Research Fellow in History of Art