John Piper


1934, 1967

Not on display

John Piper 1903–1992
Oil paint, zinc, wood, glass and dowelling on canvas on plywood
Object: 1006 × 1159 mm
Purchased 1968

Display caption

Piper’s abstract works were made between 1934 and 1937, during the height of his involvement with the British avant-garde. At the time the British scene was heavily influenced by the works of continental artists, as was reflected in the magazine Axis on which Piper worked with his future wife Myfanwy Evans. Few of these works have survived; this one was dismantled, but was reconstructed by the artist in 1967, following a photograph and using some original elements.

Gallery label, May 2007

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Catalogue entry

Construction 1934/1967


Painted construction of wood, glass, cork, metal mesh on canvas over panel
1008 x 1160 x 41 (39 5/8 x 45 5/8 x 1 5/8)

Inscribed on back in white oil paint over extensive black and green paintwork 'JOHN PIPER | CONSTRUCTION | 1934 | Reconstructed, 1967', left centre

Purchased from the artist through Marlborough Fine Art, London (Grant-in-Aid) 1968

Untitled group exhibition, Experimental Theatre, Finchley Road, London, Jan. 1935 (no catalogue traced)
John Piper: Retrospective, Ulster Museum, Belfast, March-April 1967, Dorman Museum, Middlesborough, April-May, Museum and Art Gallery, Reading, June-July, City Museum and Art Gallery, Lincoln, July-Aug., Wakefield City Art Gallery, Sept.-Oct., Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh, Nov., Howard Roberts Gallery, Cardiff, Jan.-Feb. 1968 (21, repr.)
John Piper, Tate Gallery, London, Nov. 1983-Jan. 1984 (11)

Tate Gallery Report and Acquisitions 1967-8, London 1968, pp.72-3
Richard Shone, The Century of Change: British Painting Since 1900, London 1977, p.23, pl.117 (col.)
Peter Coe and Malcolm Reading, 'Lubetkin and the ATO: Social Commitment and Political Action', Lubetkin and Tecton: Architecture and Social Commitment, London and Bristol 1981, p.50, repr.

Also reproduced:
S. John Woods, John Piper: Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, 1932-1954, London 1955, pl.13 (original state, dimensions wrongly given as 28 x 36in.)
Anthony West, John Piper, London 1979, p.64, pl.16 (original state, dimensions wrongly given as 39 1/2 x 45 1/2in.)
'Romanticism Lingers On', Apollo, vol.118, no.262, Dec. 1983, p.524 (as Abstract I)

Construction, 1934/1967 is one of three extant works made by Piper in which painted straight and curved dowels were introduced in front of abstract compositions, creating the effect of a shallow relief. Four further pieces are known from photographs. Anthony West has conflated textured paintings, collages and reliefs as 'constructions', and suggested that some were made at Hammersmith, some at a studio shared with P.F. Millard and others at the Dolphin Inn, Betchworth (Anthony West, John Piper, London 1979, p.58). More recently, David Fraser Jenkins has concluded that the reliefs were made at Betchworth during the summer of 1934 (John Piper, Tate Gallery, London, exh. cat., 1983, p.79) or during the autumn (conversation with the author).

The balance between complexity and simplicity employed in the series was retained when Construction, 1934/1967 was remade in 1967. The design was mapped out in pencil on a canvas glued down to plywood. Importance was given to texture, from the thickly worked horizontal brushstrokes in the light grey arc to smooth household enamels. Sawdust was mixed into the red of the three forms linked corner to corner down the centre (a quadrant, a small quarter circle and a semi-circle). The main arc behind these forms extends across the painted frame. The internal depth afforded by this frame (c.41mm) conceals two layers of balsa wood spacers into which the wooden strip and the dowels are lodged, thus holding them free of the paint surface. The striped dowel and the two black dowels parallel to it are drilled and pegged into the main white/grey square section strip. The other junctions between pieces of equal-sized dowel are held within ten cork disks, seven of which are painted like targets; these are made up in composite layers to facilitate the jointing (Tate Gallery conservation files). Although the joints are simple, the cutting and painting is rather rudimentary. Held in the upper layer of balsa are a perforated zinc mesh, painted with blue enamel, and a sheet of ribbed glass; both have been cut to correspond with the underlying pale blue painted planes.

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1967-8 (pp.72-3) carried a discussion of the work shortly after its reconstruction and based upon the artist's own account. It reported that 'some of the cork discs and rods were found by the artist in his attic and the reconstruction was made on the basis of these from an existing photograph'. Although associated notes suggested that the frame had been found (Tate Gallery cataloguing files), the limited number of elements recovered placed the emphasis on the photograph and on the availability of materials. As the compiler noted (ibid.), the 'most conspicuous' change was the 'different kind of metal mesh' dictated by the loss of the original in which the perforations were much larger.

S. John Woods's monograph (John Piper: Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, 1932-1954, London 1955, pl.13) included a photograph of an earlier state of the construction, noting it as destroyed. Close comparison of the photograph and the reconstruction highlights differences and suggests that the whole of the painting on the canvas was made in 1967. The composition has shifted to the left. Alterations include the reduction of both of the upper quadrants (the red one in the centre and the black at the upper right), the enlargement of the yellow truncated wedge at the bottom centre, and the upward relocation of the three white bars in the lower left. The red quadrant and the quarter circle at the centre were linked by a dotted curve absent from the reconstruction. If the present canvas was that in the earlier photograph such changes would have been unnecessary but, if undertaken, would have meant scraping to remove part of the applied texture. Furthermore, the visible pencil drawing (including compass markings) strengthens the likelihood that the painting was made anew in 1967.

Evidence of the extent of the late additions may be found elsewhere. The reverse of the board to which the canvas is glued has strokes of paint over which the inscription was made giving both dates. A less cropped print of the 1930s photograph published by West (1979, p.64, fig.16) reveals that all the arcs of the painting were continued by dotted lines across the frame. The related dotted line to the right was drawn on the surface of the glass, itself laid on top of a flat painted frame. The mesh was also laid over this frame at the top and bottom, where the overlap was painted white. The uncropped photograph shows that it was enclosed by an orthodox profiled (and possibly gilded) frame. While confirming that the painted frame on the reconstruction is not the original, this suggests that the artist considered it finished at this stage. The fact that the reconstruction is squarer than the early photograph also indicates that the frame - if added to the original construction - must have been cut down. Close inspection opens the possibility that the sheet of glass survived from the version in the photograph; the change in its relationship with the painted frame - from overlap to its present balsa anchorage - may, therefore, have determined the complete revision of the compositional relationships of Construction, 1934/1967.

Besides these differences, the most profound change was the adjustment of the geometrical basis of the composition. The artist rectified the inexact right angle joints. A diagram made from the early photograph (by the compiler), shows that the scheme had been based upon the Golden Section (the ratio 1:1.618). This determined the overall measurements of the board, as the width was (approximately) twice the Golden Section of the height. The central dowel descended from this half-way point and if projected to the lower edge, crossed it on the Golden Section point. Thus, this geometry dictated the angle at which the composition was displaced from the vertical. The main rectangle also followed this geometry. The top was formed by the white/grey strip (from its intersection with the striped dowel to the edge of the glass) and the base by the lowest dowel (extended to cross the glass); each of these lengths was equal to the Golden Section of the width of the composition. The sides were formed by the striped dowel (between the strip and the lowest dowel) and the edge of the glass; these sides were each equal to the Golden Section of the height of the composition. Thus, this inner rectangle was bound proportionally to the composition within the frame. Associated measurements were also subject to these proportions: for instance, the Golden Section of the width of the composition determines the length of the striped dowel between the base and the white/grey strip.

This essentially simple proportional scheme is absent from the reconstruction. This is evident in three details. The width is now less than twice the Golden Section of the height. The line with the three red painted forms no longer runs from the centre to the Golden Section point of the bottom, as the composition has shifted to the left. The rectangle of the structure is no longer in proportion to the whole, now being shorter and broader. As some of the dowels seem to have survived, this is further evidence for the change of the back board.

The identification of the earlier proportional scheme gives an indication of Piper's approach to abstraction on which he had just embarked. In 1935 Herta Wescher noted that 'the golden axis is laid open' in the abstract paintings ('John Piper', Axis, no.4, Nov. 1935, p.12). As with Construction, 1934/1967, this also held true for the other extant reliefs: Abstract Construction, 1934 (Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester; repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1983, p.82, no.10) and Construction (Intersection), 1934 (artist's estate; repr. ibid., p.82, no.9). In both, the width is twice the Golden Section of their height; the location of the main painted diagonal in the Whitworth's piece is a reflection of that used in Construction, 1934/1967. In this way, Piper integrated the painted areas with the structure through an ideal geometrical control. Two lost works - Construction, 1934 published in Axis, no.1 (Jan. 1935, p.11) and Construction (repr. ibid., p.78) - were close to the Tate's work in the distribution of small elements and variations were explored in surviving drawings. Jenkins has identified Sketch for a Construction (private collection; repr. ibid., p.83, no.12) as one of two studies for the Tate Gallery's work as it shares most of the elements; the reflection of the central quadrants suggests a flexibility explored before or even after the construction.

Piper must have been aware of Nicholson's contemporary White Reliefs, where a pictorial integrity was retained by limiting colour and using shallow relief. As Woods pointed out (Woods 1955, p.9), Piper's constructions also coincided with the organic reliefs of Ceri Richards, a neighbour in St Peter's Square, Hammersmith. However, Piper addressed a different problem, as his structure introduced parallax with forms shifted in front of one another. Construction, 1934/1967 is alone amongst the seven pieces in the introduction of planar elements (mesh and glass) the transparency of which pulls the painted composition forward; Construction, 1934 illustrated in Axis, no.4 (Nov. 1935, p.13; rep. Tate Gallery, exh. cat., 1983, p.78) did have an oval masking and mesh was included on the abandoned reverse of the Whitworth's relief.

This complexity may have encouraged Piper's restriction of colours and the overlaid structure to linear elements. Woods added: 'the sea remains not far distant and the constructions relate to nautical objects: rods, wire netting, corrugated glass echo masts and stays, buoys and floats, and they cross hard geometric patterns predominantly in the nautical colours of black, red and white.' (Woods 1955, p.9) This extends the painter's remark that: 'Black, white and red are the colours that show up best on the sea, or from the sea' ('The Nautical Style', Architectural Review, Jan. 1938, reprinted in John Piper, Buildings and Prospects, 1948, p.17). Jenkins has also recognised the link, but has stressed the 'truly non-figurative' aspect of the constructions (Tate Gallery exh. cat. 1983, p.78).

In retrospect, Piper himself emphasised the formal aspect of the constructions. He remarked on their 'straight and bent rods and discs on a different plane from, but near the surface of, the picture, which in itself was often varied in its own surface (for instance, smooth enamelled areas were neighboured by coarse sandpaper areas)' (Richard Ingrams and John Piper, Piper's Places: John Piper in England and Wales, London 1983, p.21). He implied experiments with movement, adding: 'I had not met Alexander Calder about this time for nothing'. He seems to have met the originator of mobiles by 1934 and it is significant that he remembered the works within a wider context. This echoed Wescher, who called them examinations of 'material possibilities', observing:

The result is construction; development of the pictorial expressiveness, both internally and externally. Steely grey grows into metal, circular forms into plastic discs. Triple-dimension face to face with planes intensifies the echo. On the background, kept somewhat at a distance by means of rods and wire-netting, there are fixed round and angular, broken and unbroken forms, and direct and indirect ways, paths from questions and perplexities lead from the one to the other.
('John Piper', Axis, no.4, Nov.1935, p.12.)

Wescher considered the constructions unresolved, but saw British art catching up with continental developments in Piper's abstract paintings.

Piper became secretary of the 7 & 5 Society in March 1934. His sympathy for a synthetic abstraction was heralded by his cubistic String Solo, 1934 (artist's estate; repr. Tate Gallery 1983, p.75, no.7), shown at the Society's exhibition (Leicester Galleries, March 1934). Eileen Holding's contribution of a free-standing Construction (repr. Axis, no.3, July 1935, p.23) to the following 7 & 5 exhibition (Zwemmer Gallery, Oct. 1935) demonstrates the converging concerns of husband and wife for a common language of construction through planes and dowels. Piper's painted reliefs approached three dimensions through shallow depth, while Holding outlined space and aspired towards a pristine sensibility in their white surfaces. Curiously, Hugh Gordon Porteus (Axis, no.3, ibid.) identified a nervous charge: 'the forms are knit together by a mutual assertiveness and hostility.'

The couple's relationship was altered in the summer of 1934. Piper met Myfanwy Evans, and began to live with her at Fawley Bottom in 1935. His constructions coincide with this transition: extending the interest in abstraction shared with Holding, just as Evans opened further routes to like-minded Parisian artists. She met Jean Hélion in Paris in August-September 1934, who encouraged her to start Axis: A Quarterly Review of Contemporary 'Abstract' Painting & Sculpture. Piper was a contributor (as was Holding) and the designer of the lay-out.

The exploration of abstract constructions was also enriched by the example of César Domela, a Paris based associate of the De Stijl group. Jenkins has recently found (conversation with the author) that Piper and Holding were in Paris at the time of the Dutchman's June 1934 exhibition (Galerie Pierre); there they also met Hélion. Domela used industrial materials - metal, bakelite, leather and glass - to make 'Neo-plastic' angled reliefs with coloured and textured layers. His steel and glass lozenge, Relief no.8, 1931 (Stedelijk Museum, Schiedam; repr. Alain Clairet, Domela: Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre en relief, Paris 1978, p.84, no.36), was illustrated in Axis, no.1 (Jan. 1935, p.22) after appearing in Abstraction-Creation Art non-figuratif (no.2, 1933, p.8), the group publication known to Evans. The related Neo-plastic relief no.9, 1929 (Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton; repr. Clairet 1978, p.85, no.37), was illustrated in the following issue of the Parisian periodical (no.3, 1934, p.12). Domela's shallow planes, perforated metal mesh and Golden Section geometry in Neo-plastic relief no.9 are closely comparable to Piper's. Domela's Relief no.12, 1933 (private collection; repr. Clairet 1978, p.90, no.43) was featured in the Abstract and Concrete exhibition in 1936 (Oxford, Cambridge, Liverpool and Lefevre), to which Piper contributed his abstract paintings.

Piper's constructions were shown at the Experimental Theatre in January 1935. The context was significantly European as the exhibition included Miró, Ernst, Baumeister, Klee and Kandinsky as well as Wadsworth, Nash, Nicholson and Jackson. Following his discussion of Wadsworth, Porteus wrote in Axis, no.1 (Jan. 1935, p.27): 'More ingenious are Mr Piper's alarmingly precise and complex "Constructions," assembled from hunks of cable, rods, drums, ribbed lavatory panes, strips of perforated bluebottle-metal, etc., and painted in sober earth colours. They suggest UndergrounD [sic] wiring diagrams, or nightmare relief maps such as a neat and gifted electrician might improvise in sleep.' While the materials described suggest that Construction, 1934/1967 was included, the slightly mocking conclusion acknowledged the combination of abstract and Surrealist artists.

The constructions were soon overtaken by works such as Abstract I, 1935 (Tate Gallery N06212) and there is no record of them being shown again for thirty years. However, in the mid 1940s Betjeman remarked upon the constructions' 'sadly battered' state (John Piper, 1944, p.12). By the time Construction, 1934/1967 was illustrated by Woods, he felt able to remark that the artist had abandoned relief making as he 'found this a dead-end activity without room for development' (Woods 1955, p.9). Perhaps stimulated by his contribution of Construction (Intersection) to Art in Britain 1930-40 (Marlborough Fine Art, 1965), Construction, 1934/1967 was reconstructed for the third of the painter's retrospectives of the 1960s (Ulster Museum, 1967). It signalled a renewed interest in a significant moment in Piper's career.

Matthew Gale
August 1996


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