John Piper

Beach with Starfish


Not on display

John Piper 1903–1992
Gouache, printed paper and ink on paper
Support: 380 × 485 mm
frame: 593 × 693 × 30 mm
Presented by Lady (Charlotte) Bonham Carter 1988

Display caption

As well as his abstract work, Piper’s early works include collages such as this one. Though influenced by the works of Braque and Picasso in the technique he used, Piper tended to take the British landscape, often a seaside scene, as his subject. In this case, the scene is the Seven Sisters cliffs near Eastbourne, and the newsprint is taken from the New Statesman, for which Piper wrote a number of articles at this time.

Gallery label, May 2007

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Catalogue entry

John Piper 1903-1992

T05030 Beach with Starfish c.1933-34

Collage of printed and other papers, gouache, pen and ink mounted on wove paper
380 x 485 (15 x 19)

Inscribed on backboard top centre 'John Piper | Drawing 193['5' deleted]3 | 8 gns'

Presented by Lady (Charlotte) Bonham Carter 1988

Purchased from the artist by Lady (Charlotte) Bonham Carter early 1940s

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1986-8, London 1996, pp.473-4, repr. p.473

The layering and shaping of the papers of Beach with Starfish demonstrate Piper's combination of control and spontaneity in making a collage. At the centre are two angled pages on which the printed text has remained largely legible, although the bottom of each has been obscured by the beach. The left hand page overlapped that to the right; both were cut to form the sweeping crests of the cliff. A smaller piece of text was integrated as the furthest outcrop. These planes were enhanced in gouache also used for the cerulean sky and mauve/browns of the energetic sea and mottled sand. Ink and slivers of plain and printed ochre papers were added as modulation. Finally, ochre and grey marbled papers were superimposed in the foreground; on top were gathered a collection of marine creatures from scientific text books (sea-weed and starfish) and from the artist's own whimsical imagination (cut-out fish and painted starfish).

The present descriptive title was selected on acquisition by the Tate Gallery. The original title has been lost and the inscription probably refers to a drawing of which the frame and board had been re-used. A substantial report on the work has recently been written by David Fraser Jenkins and Virginia Button for Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1986-8 (1996, pp.473-4). They proposed that Piper may have submitted it to the 7 & 5 Society exhibition (March 1934) under another title; amongst those listed, 'the catch-all' title English Coast was most promising. Elsewhere Jenkins has noted (John Piper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1983, p.41) an uncatalogued selection of gouaches and collages of the south coast shown at Lefevre and recalled by the artist as in 1933 or 1934.

In the Tate Gallery Acquisitions the location of Beach with Starfish was identified as the Seven Sisters cliffs between Cuckmere Haven and Eastbourne on the Sussex coast, although the artist told Jenkins (6 Jan.1988) that it was made in his studio in St Peter's Square, Hammersmith from drawings. The source was convincingly identified as a sketchbook of c.1934, formerly in the collection of Peggy Angus (private collection, photographs Witt Library, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London). One ink sketch (Witt L.15/21/C(23)) shows the same view, but with rocks in foreground, annotated 'Black | Dark green & wh[ite]'.

Among the related collages are the vertical Beach I and Beach II (Anthony West, John Piper, London 1979, figs.9, 10, p.62), both habitually dated 1932. The coincidence of the printed texts and marine diagrams, and the dimensions of the overall sheet (19 x 15 inches), suggest that they were undertaken at the same time as Beach with Starfish. This would be consistent with preparations for an exhibition, such as that at Lefevre. Two landscape collages with buildings, may also belong to the group. Inscribed 'JP 1930' Hope Inn (National Museum of Wales, repr. in col. Derek Williams Collection at the National Museum of Wales, exh. cat., no.27, p.18) includes a scrim covered paper used in both Beach collages as well as text and diagrams. Seaford Head (private collection, no repr. known), formerly owned by the painter Peggy Angus, also had diagrams but text was used for a serpentine road beside the house. Although the background may show 'the same view of the cliffs, seen from further away' (Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1986-8, 1996, pp.473-4), this distance must be about three miles. Angus told Jenkins (9 Oct. 1990; ibid.) that Piper made the collage at Furlongs, her cottage near the Sussex coast. He used the sketchbook later given to her and papers he had brought with him. As a reference to the sea, he included 'Albatross' from an advertisement for The Albatross Book of Living Verse in the New Statesman and Nation of 9 December 1933 (vol.6, no.146, p.760).

Beach with Starfish must have been made after this date, as the two sheets have been identified (ibid.) as from consecutive pages of the same issue of the New Statesman and Nation (pp.724-5). Piper signed a review in the following issue. Another page from that issue (p.744), with a review of André Maurois's King Edward and his Times, has been identified (John Piper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery 1983, p.87) in a sixth collage: Newhaven (private collection, repr. John Piper, exh. cat., Marlborough Fine Art, 1964, p.21, no.25). This is usually ascribed to 1936, but the style and technique (similar marbled paper) relate to Beach with Starfish rather than to 1936 collages like Littlestone-on-Sea (Tate Gallery T00646). Having said this, it remains likely that Piper kept a stock of papers for years. In any case, the angling of the text for the cliff face in all six collages certainly served a visual function; providing white planes varied by the print, it also translated into abstract terms the exposed strata of the rocks. Given the upheavals following Hitler's rise to power in Germany in early 1933, Piper's decision to leave visible in Beach with Starfish articles on the relative economic situations in Britain ('The Unemployment Bill under Fire') and Germany ('Nazi Economics') encourages political interpretation. The likelihood of deliberation is reinforced by the fact that the additional text about the Bank of France (from the regular 'The Week in the City') was brought in from later in the same issue (p.790). Piper's transformation of these economic texts into the coastal barrier against foreign invasion appears as deliberate as the use of 'Albatross'.

The artistic references were more straightforward. The juxtaposition of still life and landscape had been characteristic of artists associated with the 7 & 5 Society. Nicholson had combined it with collage and shared Piper's interest in Cubist precedents, especially in the work of Picasso and Braque. Piper is said to have gone to Paris to see Picasso's papiers collés at the Galerie Pierre (West 1979, p.51). In asserting to Jenkins (Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1986-8, 1996) that the marine elements in Beach with Starfish were arranged on a table, Piper implied that his interest lay as much in the Cubists' layering of pictorial space as in their collage technique.

Matthew Gale
September 1996


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