John Piper

Coast of Brittany I


Not on display

John Piper 1903–1992
Paper and watercolour on paper
Support: 559 × 775 mm
Presented by the Art Fund with the assistance of the bequest of Dennis Daybell 1962

Display caption

Despite frequent visits to France and Italy, Piper did not work abroad until he painted views of Venice for an exhibition at the Arthur Jeffress Gallery in 1960. He stayed in Finisterre in Brittany in 1960 and 1961, where he drew the rocky beaches. He was then finishing the huge abstract design for stained glass for Coventry Cathedral, which he had prepared partly in collages of coloured papers. A similar method was used to enlarge his Brittany studies, which were further enlarged as oil paintings.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Coast of Brittany I 1961


Papier collé and watercolour on wove paper

570 x 784 (22 1/2 x 30 7/8)

Inscribed in black watercolour 'John Piper' b.r.
Watermarked 'HANDMADE'

Purchased from the artist with a sum bequeathed by Dennis Daybell through the National Art Collections Fund with assistance from the National Art Collections Fund 1962

Extended loan, Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, 1978-9
John Piper: Painting in Coloured Light: An Exhibition of Stained Glass and Related Works, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, Dec. 1982-Jan. 1983 (31, repr.)

Tate Gallery Report 1961-62, London 1962, p.28
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.524

Piper travelled through France regularly in the 1950s, drawn especially to the architecture and the medieval stained glass. He stayed in Brittany in 1960 (August-September) and, as he told the Tate Gallery, this collage and its companion Coast of Brittany II (T00488) were 'executed [in] 1961 at Fawley Bottom from (or rather, in relation to) watercolours and sketches done ... in the summer of 1960, on the north coast of Finistère. I did (and am still doing) many studies of this rocky coast ... which I visited again in the summer of 1961' (letter to the Tate Gallery, 9 July 1962). This statement implies that the collages were made before his return to France in August 1961; however, they were not included in his exhibition of Breton oils and watercolours at the Bear Lane Gallery, Oxford in May-June.

Both collages were begun on heavy cream wove paper; Coast of Brittany I is watermarked 'HANDMADE'. For both, the artist made a wax resist of roughly drawn horizontal lines, over which watercolour was washed. The same technique - with different colours - seems to have been used for some of the papers from which the additional pieces were cut; these were combined with plain papers, the colours in each case being rich in hue. This method was used for various compositions, as shown by the more dispersed focus of Brittany Beach, 1961 (private collection, repr. John Piper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1983, p.131, no.148). Certain formal devices were also shared. Thus the acutely zigzagged and superimposed cut-outs recur in the foreground of a number of works, and may be read as breaking waves, while less agitated undulations above suggest clouds; a black and white mottled paper appears in this capacity in both Tate collages. Care was taken with the symmetry of the Coast of Brittany I centred on the red ochre form. However, both collages show signs of haste. The sheets have tears in their right sides, and the intrusive yellowing of the glue over time (which has also become brittle) shows that it was squeezed out from under the papers and across other areas.

What David Fraser Jenkins has called 'a distinct group in format and technique' (exh. cat. Tate 1983, p.132) proved readily translatable into lithography, as Beach in Brittany, 1961-2 (Tate Gallery P06423, repr. in col., Orde Levinson, John Piper: The Complete Graphic Works, A Catalogue Raisonné 1923-1983, London 1987, p.55, no.117; revised as 'Quality and Experiment': The Prints of John Piper; A Catalogue Raisonné 1923-1991, London 1996, p.72, no.117), and even stained glass, as Brittany Beach I, 1965 (Victoria and Albert Museum) and Brittany Beach II, 1965 (artist's estate, not reproduced). Piper's visits to France were interwoven with stays in Italy, and works resulting from both were made at Fawley Bottom. Like contemporary paintings such as The Forum (Tate Gallery T00516), the Coast of Brittany collages demonstrated his renewed interest in abstraction in the 1960s, especially as channelled through a review of his own pre-war techniques. Although extending his vocabulary of collage, the formal arrangements and methods used in 1961 are closely comparable to the constructive use of irregular pieces of paper for related seaside subjects such as Littlestone-on-Sea, 1936 (Tate Gallery T00646). With The Forum and the watercolours of Three Suffolk Towers (Tate Gallery T00494), the Coast of Brittany collages were bought in 1962 by the Tate, after the conclusion of the artist's second period as a Trustee. Shortly afterwards, the purchase of Littlestone-on-Sea and Construction 1934/1967 (Tate Gallery T01026), in 1964 and 1968 respectively, reinforced the re-evaluation of Piper's pre-war period.

Matthew Gale
August 1996

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