Friday, March 4, 2016
God is in the textures
This week I attended a fascinating day of talks by Suzanne Fagence-Cooper on British neo-Romantic art, particularly the work of Eric Ravilious and John Piper. I was struck especially by the way she brought out Piper’s spiritual quality (his stained glass designs were crucial to this) and how she related the artist’s early abstract work to the later paintings and prints, noting how very often shapes and forms that Piper worked out in abstract pictures in the 1930s underpin his later realistic images of landscapes, buildings, and so on. The same is true, I think, of a lot of Piper’s designs for work in other media, from fabrics to ceramics, a theme Suzanne Fagence-Cooper also touched on.
I came back thinking (yet again) how much I’d learned from Piper’s pictures of buildings. He was fascinated by textures – of stone, plaster, wood, brickwork – and depicted these brilliantly. And his appreciation of texture fed his love of what he called ‘pleasing decay’. ‘Pleasing Decay’ is the title of an article he wrote for the Architectural Review and later reprinted in his lovely book Buildings and Prospects.* Piper wrote other articles that he didn’t reprint, including one on colour and texture in architecture, again published in the Architectural Review.† In it, he describes how one can see the far-gone effects of weathering ‘where derelict and half-derelict buildings become almost one with the flora and geology of the landscape’.
Among the illustrations Piper produced for his article was this one of a ruined cottage in Yorkshire.¶ As ever, Piper tells us a lot with economical means. In a scattering of strokes and lines and a few patches of wash, he depicts areas of peeling render, courses of old stones, bits of rubble masonry, and the chunkier quoins that reinforce the door openings and the corners of the porch. Other lines suggest a diagonal crack in the masonry of the chimney and the weathered edges of the slates. The areas of coloured wash suggest that the left-hand end of the house may be an addition, built partly in brick or perhaps a darker stone.
The Architectural Review’s wartime printing doesn’t do full justice to the picture – and maybe Piper wasn’t fully satisfied with it, because there seems to be another version with brighter light on the front wall and perhaps more subtle textures in the foreground. But with its occasional shimmering highlights and murky sky, the image as printed is still powerful, showing how, in the least regarded, most disposable of buildings texture can be key to appearance and impact. The quality of a surface – its roughness or smoothness, its materials, its tactile presence – mattered to Piper, and his image makes one think about these small but crucial details.
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* John Piper, Buildings and Prospects, The Architectural Press, 1948
† John Piper, ‘Colour and Texture’, Architectural Review, Vol 95, No 566, February 1944, pages 51–2
¶ The ruined cottage is a Wordsworthian theme, and Piper quotes Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes: ‘The dwelling-houses, and contiguous out-houses, are, in many instances, of the colour of the native rock, out of which they have been built...’ and later, ‘whitewash, which...in a few years acquires, by the influence of the weather, a tint at once sober and variegated.’