Oil, emulsion and charcoal on hessian
1071 x 1529 (42 1/8 x 60 3/16)
Inscribed in black oil paint 'John Piper' b.l.
Purchased from the artist through Arthur Jeffress Gallery, London (Grant-in-Aid) 1962
Paintings and Watercolours of Rome by John Piper, Arthur Jeffress Gallery, London, May 1962 (2, repr.)
Tate Gallery Review 1953-63 (incorporating Tate Gallery Report 1962-63), London 1963, p.56
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.525
Piper's paintings of Italy combined the traditions of the vedutisti of the seventeenth century with his own modification of the picturesque. The 1947 watercolours of Sir George Sitwell's Tuscan villa at Montegufoni had extended the series of Renishaw (1942-3) for his son Osbert Sitwell and in 1958-1960 the painter visited Venice over three consecutive springs. The watercolours made there were worked up as oil paintings at Fawley Bottom and shown at the Arthur Jeffress Gallery in 1960. The success of this exhibition prompted a similar scheme centred on Rome, where the painter worked in February and March 1961. The oil paintings which resulted - The Forum was made in October 1961 according to the artist (letter to the Tate Gallery, 9 July 1962) - were exhibited at the same gallery in May 1962. David Fraser Jenkins has described Piper's approach to these projects as 'sidelines, away from his regular dealer and with buildings and atmosphere he had never studied before [so that] he developed a more rapid way of working' (John Piper: The Robert and Rena Lewin Gift to the Ashmolean Museum, exh. cat., Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1992, p.16).
Seven watercolours of the Forum - numbered I-VII - featured in the 1962 exhibition. These showed the site from various directions, and probably included an advanced study for the Tate oil painting known as The Forum, Rome (collection of Mr and Mrs Robert Lewin, repr. ibid., 1992, p.25, no.33). The view south to the Arch of Titus as seen from the slopes of Capitoline hill had been chosen by generations of artists. In the watercolour, the buildings - even the ancient flagstones - are clearly identifiable in the 'arrangement of browns and reds, against a ground colour of black, white and grey' (ibid. p.16). This established a tension between topography and painterly gesture which became more apparent in the oil painting.
Unusually, Piper stretched hessian on a commercial Rowneys stretcher, perhaps because the material approximated the texture and warm tone of Roman bricks. A single coat of size proved inadequate priming so that the thick blocks of household emulsion, the swirls of oil paint and overlaid glazes all soaked into the support. The dripping - which seems to derive from the outlining of the flagstones in the sketch - introduced an underlying dynamic over which the blocks implied topography and recession through a rhythm of horizontals and verticals. The charcoal line in the centre and the orthogonals from the right convey illusionistic depth, which was contradicted by the assertive application of paint on the picture surface.
The addition of black paint and charcoal lines (which became partially fixed by being worked into the medium-soaked material) facilitates the identification of the buildings even as they were adjusted to the painter's compositional purpose. From the left, the charcoal provided a dome for the Baroque church of S. Lorenzo in Miranda built inside the white on ochre portico of the Temple of Antoninus Faustina; beyond suggestions of the Basilica of Maxentius, is the red vertical and blue grey block of the Romanesque campanile and Baroque facade of S. Francesca Romana. The presence of the Coliseum is implied by the horizontal charcoal lines above. The central white vertical derives from the Column of Phocas, elevated from its foreground location to play a pivotal role between the Forum and the darkened slopes of the Palatine hill and its palaces. Just to the right is the Arch of Titus and the three verticals of the columns of the temple of Castor and Pollux, which have also been raised up in front of the hill. In the foreground charcoal lines suggest the columns of the Temple of Saturn.
These combinations of materials and techniques were unexpected introductions to Piper's repertoire. Jenkins (ibid.) has suggested that the accommodation of abstraction responded to 'the revival of abstract painting in British art of the 1960s' and to the example of Picasso. Certainly, the use of dripping in The Forum was a sign of an attempted assimilation of Abstract Expressionist techniques.