TO be told that John Piper was one of “the most significant British artists of the 20th century” sounds a bit like a soundbite. But on his 80th birthday his life’s work was celebrated with a retrospective at London’s Tate Gallery. That fact, if nothing else, is enough to make any lover of art sit up and take notice.
Piper, a workaholic who produced paintings, ceramics, mosaics, prints, textiles and stained glass from an old converted cow shed in Fawley Bottom, died in 1992, but his long association with a Henley art gallery continues and next weekend a new exhibition of his work will open at the Reading Road venue.
“In his lifetime he was one of the nearest artists to Picasso and Matisse in that they covered every medium that was offered to them,” says Patricia Jordan Evans, owner of the Bohun Gallery.
“I opened the gallery in 1973 and became interested in a part of his art called Eye and Camera based on the female form. It was photography together with drawing and cut-outs, collage-style — almost like some of the things you will see at the Matisse exhibition currently running in London.
“I asked John if I could put on an exhibition and because it was a side of his work that nobody knew about he was very excited. So there I was in my twenties, and he was getting on for 70, and I would go out to his studio in Fawley and he would give me about five portfolios and and say, ‘Just choose what you want to show.’ It was amazing.
“He worked non-stop. He didn’t take holidays. He was very statuesque, very kind, and he would always have classical music playing at his studio.”
Pat become friends with Piper, and the pair collaborated together on many shows. In fact, since that first show, the Bohun has staged an exhibition of his work every two years.
This year, the show will focus on his love of the English countryside, and in particular, his fascination with ruined churches, stately homes and castles. It was a fascination that started at a very tender age.
“He loved churches but he didn’t like them cleaned up — he called it ‘pleasing decay’,” said Pat. “By the age of 11 he had toured all the churches in Surrey and done a little travel guide to them, just out of interest.
“After the war, country houses were being demolished at a rapid rate and they said John Piper, together with poet John Betjeman, were part of the movement that saved the day. They made people realise the historical value of country houses.”
At the Bohun will be a series of six silkscreen views of Scotney Castle in Kent and a limited edition print of the Chantry House in Henley. There is also a gouache and ink collage of the Tree of Life, a design that would later be reproduced in a stained glass window he was commissioned to make. Examples of his stained glass work can be seen at St Bartholomew’s Church in Nettlebed and St Mary’s Church in Turville.
Pat explained that although Piper was a Christian it was his love of the beauty of ecclesiastic buildings that inspired him, rather than spiritual feelings.
“Betjeman persuaded him to get confirmed in the church, but it was thought he may have lost his faith towards the end of his life,” says Pat, who explained that personal family tragedy probably played its part.
The Bohun Gallery manager, Katie Newman, said: “This is a real opportunity for collectors. That Pat has managed to amass the most amazing collection, so many original works, is an incredible opportunity.”
• John Piper: A Quintessentially British Artist, a display of paintings, ceramics, textiles and prints, opens May 3 and runs until June 17. Call (01491) 576228 or visit www.bohungallery.co.uk