John Piper, C.H. (1903-1992)
No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VA… Read more THE PROPERTY OF A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTOR Graham Sutherland concentrated on and honed a small range of particular skills throughout his career. It is rewarding to examine these closely in this exemplary group of paintings and works on paper made across thirty years. He learnt to 'see the world in a grain of sand', painting very small things as if they were huge, or even allowing readings of double scales within the same painting. The large watercolour Tree Forms in Estuary, 1940 (lot 77), is of some weathered roots, most likely in a tidal creek in Pembrokeshire, yet the shapes simultaneously explode outwards into a landscape panorama. Precision in drawing was a skill he endlessly refined, especially with a favourite image like the plant rhizome, presumably dervived from maize corn, which became Turning Form No 1, 1948 (lot 79). He was fanatically keen to outline things exactly as he had seen them, so as to ground their new impact in individual character. Over the years, Sutherland slowly extended his range of colours. At first he borrowed from the watercolours of William Blake, with crimson flames and lemon light. Such imaginative colouring took on further licence in the brilliance of the South of France after the war. The triumph of his later Pembrokeshire landscapes, such as Landscape Orange and Blue, 1971 (lot 82), with their thoroughly disturbing and unreal colour, demonstrates his pre-occupation with accurate drawing and ambiguous scale. In the early 1950s the relationship between Sutherland and Francis Bacon was at its closest. Both influenced by Picasso's anguished wartime paintings, the two English-speaking artists also mutually benefitted from each other. Bacon took on some of Sutherland's visions and skills, whilst Sutherland adopted a more proper version of Bacon's ability to accommodate the full-on squelch of lust and brutality. Sutherland transferred a personality to his nightmarish visions of insects and beasts, such as the confidently haunting Variation on a Theme II, 1953 (lot 81). These powerful paintings, admired in Venice, Paris and New York, were the basis of his reputation as the leading post-war European painter of his generation. John Piper was so much the opposite of Sutherland that it is surprising that they briefly coincided in the circle of Sir Kenneth Clark before and during the war. His Holkham, Norfolk, 1939 (lot 75), constituted a critical advance to an effective war art. With its fountain, obelisk, church and designed garden within an overall scheme, it reclaims English history in the guise of abstraction. Both artists looked to link historic English and modern French art at this time of crisis, and shared a wish to keep together the fragments of a local vision. David Fraser Jenkins Published in Christie's Magazine, November 2006.
John Piper, C.H. (1903-1992)

Holkham, Norfolk

John Piper, C.H. (1903-1992)
Holkham, Norfolk
signed, inscribed and dated 'John Piper. Holkham 1939' (lower right) and signed, inscribed and dated again 'Holkham, Norfolk/John Piper/1940' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas, laid on panel
20 x 30 in. (50.8 x 76.2 cm.)
with Leicester Galleries, 1940.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 11 November 1987, lot 109, where acquired by the present owner.
S. John Woods, John Piper: paintings, drawings and theatre designs 1932-1954, London, 1955, pl. 80.
Various, The Art Book, London, 1994, p. 360, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, John Piper: The Forties, London, Imperial War Museum, 2000, p. 86, illustrated, and illustrated on the cover.
Exhibition catalogue, John Piper in the 1930s, Abstraction on the Beach, London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2003, p. 170, ill. pp. 174 and 175.
R. Birbeck, 'Beach Boy', Building Design, 11 April 2003, illustrated.
S. Hubbard, 'The Great Contender', The Independent Review, 13 May 2003.
London, Leicester Galleries, Paintings and water-colours by John Piper, March, 1940, no. 27.
London, Imperial War Museum, John Piper: The Forties, October 2000 - January 2001, no. 38.
London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, John Piper in the 1930s, Abstraction on the Beach, April - June 2003, no. 82: this exhibition travelled to Nottingham, Djanogly Gallery, July - September 2003.
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Lot Essay

Holkham, Norfolk is a very unconventional view of a famous English country house. It lacks architectural perspective, and the tower of the parish church is somehow brought on as an equal player to the palace, but this painting marked the onset of Piper's most characteristic work. He was then aged 36, and in the years just before this he had gone from his complicated abstract paintings in primary colours to more or less giving up painting in oil, while he explored new subjects and new techniques in pale watercolours and drawings. Holkham was one of the first and most successful results of his return to oil painting, and was furthermore his first oil painting of a great country house. It led on, a few years later, to his classical paintings of Windsor Castle and Renishaw Hall, and years later again to his well known screenprints and watercolours of churches and country palaces. It was included in March 1940 in his first solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, which sold well and marked the start of his public reputation.

There was always a swing in Piper's career between his interests in English architecture, which he recorded mostly in accurate, topographical drawings, and his enthusiasm for modern art, which led to what were then regarded as outrageously abstract and Parisian oil paintings. Just before the war he had returned to a spell of serious study of buildings, when he completed, with John Betjeman, the Shell Guide to Shropshire, although it was not published until 1951. In his own drawing he had been guided by a painstaking interest in the landscapes of John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), encouraged by the first book on the artist, published in 1937. Cotman's watercolours were themselves strikingly reduced to simple shapes, and it was by setting off to look at the places Cotman had painted, and balancing what he saw against the memory of the pictures, that Piper broke through to an entirely new vision of his own. Cotman also worked in two styles, of art and topography. Piper collected topographical books, and had bought the pair of folio volumes of Cotman's etchings, and travelled himself to see the churches reproduced in them (it is possible that the books were bought later, but it was certainly early on that he acquired them, when they cost him £3-10-0, according to the price in the cover).

Piper was a fanatically enthusiastic car driver, he drove a Lancia which he had bought in November 1938. He was tireless in trailing the countryside for buildings, and shared his love of both the old and the modern in architecture with the staff of the Architectural Review. It was with James Richards, the editor of the Review, that he drove around between May and June 1939 to research forthcoming articles, and to see Cotman's Norfolk. Both men were taking photographs to use in the elaborate programme for articles, some on particular subjects and others for what they called 'general readings'. These 'general readings' included such topics as 'English Rural Vernacular (two aspects in particular: use of materials - suggesting precedents for modern architecture - and surprising geometric effects)'. This was probably Richards' idea, but it also describes the several interests of Piper's new painting. He drew busily on this trip, and a sketchbook formerly at his home near Henley, Fawley Bottom, was crammed with his drawings and written notes about churches as well as about a few houses. They raced around endless remote villages from East Anglia to the Midlands: Cowlinge, Little Saxham, Euston, Hilborough, Aylsham, Cley, Burnham Overy, Holkham, Houghton, the Wiggenhalls, Walpole St Peter ('perhaps the best in England for general appearance and detail'), Gedney, Swinstead, Oxcombe, South Creake ... Matlock, Riber Castle, Checkley and Alton Towers. Holkham Hall thus made its appearance in Piper's repertoire as one of the sights of Norfolk, an addition to the roster that Cotman in his topographical mode had published in his 'Specimens of the Architectural Antiquities of Norfolk'.

The contrast between historic and modern buildings was not in the least a problem for Piper, or for James Richards. In fact to the contrary, the association of different styles within the same view became for a time one of the fundamentals of Piper's art. He was always against purism, and had been encouraged by his discovery in Wales of the architecturally mish-mashed Hafod House in Cardiganshire, which he drew repeatedly in the same hot summer of 1939 before the war. This became for Piper an access to understanding the celebrated picturesque houses and gardens of Britain, such as Stourhead, which he painted that autumn, and to the urban variety of such towns as Brighton and Cheltenham, both of which he portrayed for commissions as a panorama of styles, mixing happily together the most modern with the classical and eccentric.

But the outbreak of the war, already dreaded for several years beforehand, forced changes. He was too old to be immediately conscripted, but straight away some future commissions vanished - one for designing a new opera for Glyndebourne, another for a triple exhibition curated by Philip Hendy at Leeds City Art Gallery to be shared with Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland (though both projects were revived). Petrol was rationed within a few weeks of the declaration of war, which cut short any private tours he might have made. But he was commissioned to join an employment scheme for artists called 'Recording Britain' for the Pilgrim Trust under Sir Kenneth Clark, which was first discussed that October. The title itself may have had an immediate impact on his work, as the concept of a 'national record' immediately transformed the basis of work for a landscape painter.

It is difficult to keep in mind that Piper was never a portrayer of country houses for commission, with a few exceptions, because the many houses he did paint were taken on as just a part of his outlook, as much as were his landscapes, churches and ruins, or as were Graham Sutherland's lanes and roots of the 1940s. It was with a respect for the picturesque and a mood of recording Britain that Piper painted Holkham Hall. The house is of local yellow brick, and his colouring is correct for the rather patchy light of a clouded winter morning. The proportions are however amazingly astray, with the side wings of the house diminished, and the heights overall too squat. But this is not a country house portrait. The colouring is reduced to an emotional key of dusty pink, blue and yellow with browns and blacks, applied with a minimum of drawing, except in the fountain figures. He painted on a thinly wove canvas that was glued to hardboard, to enable him to cut away the canvas at certain places - the clouds, and the building - so that he could mark the surface with scratches as well as paint. The application dominates the subject, both in patterns of shapes and in the whirl of scratched lines in the clouds and sky. The subject is balanced to left and right on either side of the column, and the church tower and clumps of trees equal the rather minimal presentation of William Kent's masterpiece. The buildings are seen as a panorama, to be looked at horizontally from side to side, bringing together Palladian and Gothic.

This is the kind of subject that had been out of favour in British painting since the time of Richard Wilson in the 18th century. What had then been a proud ideal and a grafting of foreign manners onto Britain is now a conjunction of a different kind, of a modern painting which still has memories of Braque's depictions of the Normandy coast in around 1930, but which now shows north Norfolk and a celebrated site. The painterly construction of modern French art here plays down the grandeur of the subject, while recognising the church tower, column and palace as a continuous historical development that is a fit subject for a contemporary vision. Piper's generation had lived through the Great War, and felt the failure of the brief optimistic recovery of the mid-1930s. There is a sense in his paintings of 1939-43 of holding on to the past only in so far as it may still be modern, a tenuous clutching to both old and new, British and European, to await the possibility of reconstruction.

We are very grateful to David Fraser Jenkins for preparing this catalogue entry.

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