John Piper, C.H. (1903-1992)
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John Piper, C.H. (1903-1992)


John Piper, C.H. (1903-1992)
inscribed and dated 'Abstraction/1937' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas laid on board
20 x 30 in. (50.8 x 76.2 cm.)
Purchased by the present owner's father at the 1965 exhibition.
Exhibition catalogue, Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures, London, David W. Hughes Gallery, 1968, no. 51, illustrated.
probably London, Marlborough Gallery, John Piper Retrospective Exhibition, March 1964, no. 33.
London, Marlborough Gallery, Art in Britain 1930-40 centred around Axis Circle and Unit One, March - April 1965, no. 138.
London, David W. Hughes Gallery, Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Paintings, Drawings and Sculptures, Summer 1968, no. 51, as 'Abstract'.
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Lot Essay

David Fraser Jenkins discusses the abstract works from the mid 1930s, 'the abstract paintings of 1935 and 1936 increasingly use a palette of clear reds, blues and whites against a background of black (often the shiny enamel Ripolin) and brown. The move from construction to painting followed also the change of studio from Betchworth in Surrey, where all the earlier constructions were made, to the new house near Henley in February 1935, but the continuity is evident, in the collaged studies and in the contrasted textures of the paintings, often cut through the canvas to the board beneath. The technical process of studying the arrangement in collage, then copying, altering and enlarging in gouache and oil, was established then and persisted for many of Piper's more important works. Thus the abstract paintings exist in several versions of different sizes, with certain families of shapes. A record exists of about thirty-five of them from these two years, and there must have been more. They are difficult to identify from exhibition catalogues, except where there are photographs, since they were usually titled merely 'Painting', and furthermore there were no catalogue listings between the two 7&5 Society exhibitions in March 1934 and October 1935. The more important works were illustrated and dated in Axis with also, however, a gap over the summer of 1935' (see D. Fraser Jenkins, exhibition catalogue, John Piper, London, Tate Gallery, 1983, p. 79).

Frances Spalding writes of the present work 'This painting affirms John Piper's position as one of the leading abstract artists in Britain in the mid-1930s. It plays with the opposition between rounded forms and straight lines and edges. It sets up echoes and repetitions that help structure the composition into a tightly knit design. And it gains a slight lilt from those angles which depart from the strict verticals and horizontals which dominate the arrangement. Holding all this together is a subtle, but also powerful, understanding of colour. The close-toned harmonies are daringly offset by the white at the centre and by notes of red, the purples moderating between these and the blues.

Piper's first experiments with abstraction took the form of reliefs made out of everday materials. Before these, while still working with figurative subjects, he had done much work with papier-collé, having been inspired by an article on collage by Tristan Tzara in Cahiers d'Art. The experience of collage, of placing pieces of paper flat on the picture plane and making them active ingredients within the pictorial architecture, proved to have been an important stimulus in his move towards abstraction. In this picture we find, in places, a sense of shallow overlap, as if one shape is either in front of or behind another, like playing cards on a table top. This suggestion both enriches the relationships between the parts while simultaneously re-affirming the surface of the picture, in keeping with modernist doxology.

Motivated, like other abstract artists at this time, by ideals of rigour and purity, Piper has carefully evolved a pictorial vocabulary that is both impersonal in its choice of lines, shapes and colours, but which can immediately be identified as his. This pictorial vocabulary connects this abstract with others painted during the year 1935. On the back of this picture, however, written in Piper's hand is the title and date, 'Abstraction, 1937'. This slightly later date ill-suits this abstract, though it is possible that it was retouched in 1937, and the date then added. But it is more likely that Piper added the inscription some time later, shortly before sending the painting to an exhibition, for, though a formidable craftsman in many fields, he was slapdash when it came to remembering dates.

When asked by R. Myerscough-Walker, in an interview in The Artist (May 1944), whether or not his abstracts represented any particular subjects, Piper replied: 'They were related to the painting I had done immediately before. Since I had been painting a good deal at the seaside - at Dungeness and in Dorset - the abstract paintings were influenced by forms and colours on the beach and cliff, but only vaguely'. It is possible that some of his shapes and colours were distilled from nautical objects - from buoys, staysails, the masts and hulls of boats. Almost certainly, his abstracts, in their organization and use of interval, rhythm, harmony and proportion, owe much to his love of music. Myfanwy Piper recollected on radio that when she first got to know Piper, he and an organist friend had a passion for Handel's Second Concerto for Organ and Strings, which they would play over and over again, by turns, on the piano. Piper, himself, in an essay which he wrote, likened a Henry Moore drawing to one of Bach's 'engine-rhythms', by which, as he explains, he meant the following: 'Balance, separation, silence, precision, sternness, nakedness, delicacy, rigour: all the words one might find helpful in attempting to describe the nature of a Bach fugue' ('Aspects of Modern Drawing', Signature, No. 7, November 1937). His words seem highly relevant to any appreciation of this picture'.

Frances Spalding, 2010.

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