John Piper, C.H. (1903-1992)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more
John Piper, C.H. (1903-1992)

Sea Buildings

John Piper, C.H. (1903-1992)
Sea Buildings
signed, inscribed and dated 'John Piper/Sea Buildings/1938.' (on the reverse)
oil, pencil and ripolin on canvas laid on panel and partly cut out
12 x 16 in. (30.5 x 40.5 cm.)
Acquired directly from the artist, and by descent.
Anonymous sale; Bonhams, London, 8 November 2007, lot 59, where purchased by the present owner.
N. Hepburn, exhibition catalogue, John Piper in Kent & Sussex, Paddock Wood, Mascalls Gallery, 2011, n.p., no. 30, illustrated.
London, London Gallery, John Piper, 1938, no. 10.
Paddock Wood, Kent, Mascalls Gallery, John Piper in Kent & Sussex, March - May 2011, no. 30: this exhibition travelled to Eastbourne, Towner, July - September 2011.
Special notice

Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

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Pippa Jacomb
Pippa Jacomb

Lot Essay

Sea Buildings was painted at a hinge moment in John Piper's career. It builds on just over three years experimentation with abstract art, yet at the same time hints at the return of representation. The title, which he inscribed on the back of the painting, is provocative. The abstract shapes in the foreground do not in any obvious way suggest buildings; but because of their association with the glimpse of sea or sky on the right hand side, they take on the kind of 'coastal gaiety' that Piper wrote about in his seminal article 'Nautical Style', published in January 1938 in The Architectural Review, and reprinted in his book Buildings and Prospects (1948).

Piper's entry into abstract art had been through the making of reliefs, following the examples of César Domela. He had expressed a desire to break up and diversify the picture surface. This he achieved in his abstract paintings by covering the plywood or wooden ground with canvas which he then cut into, removing segments to give variations in level and surface texture. This habit recurs in Sea Buildings where at one point the wood of the panel is exposed so that its natural colour can contribute to the composition as a whole. The use of both oil paint and shiny ripolin paint made possible further alteration in the texture of the picture surface.

The abstract shapes are strongly reminiscent of cut-outs. There may be a reminiscence, here, of Piper's involvement with printing. In order to make possible inexpensive colour illustrations for his wife Myfanwy Piper's magazine Axis, he had turned to Paramat blocks. These were metal plates covered with rubber which he cut away, leaving a template to be printed. This process seems to have fostered in him a fascination with the negatives, the arbitrary, unexpected shapes found among the remains, either when working with Paramat blocks or making collages in paper.

Sea Buildings, like other abstracts of the 1937-38 period, plays with echoes and near repetitions, contrasting curves with straight lines and, with purposeful movement, sweeping all the parts into a whole. By this date, Piper's abstract language had achieved both fluency and sophistication, as can also be seen in the related work, Screen for the Sea, Black Ground (1938), in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Here, however, the sea is obscured, or vaguely hinted at by an indeterminate area of pale blue. But in Sea Buildings, the abstract forms are clustered against an atmospheric ground which suggests the movement of water, while also conveying the feeling that the outside world is trying to break in.

We are very grateful to Frances Spalding for preparing this catalogue entry, and to Rev. Dr Stephen Laird FSA for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.

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