John Piper

Covehithe Church


Not on display

John Piper 1903–1992
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 863 × 1118 mm
Presented by the artist 1984

Display caption

Piper painted this ruined church, near the coast in Suffolk, at the time of his eightieth birthday. It reflects the knowledge of architecture he had built up over his lifetime in two ways: he was aware of the existence of this quite remote church and he understood how to convey its particular character.

This is an emotional as well as an architectural view. The racing clouds and fitful light suggest a personal sense of the ruin as an image of preservation as well as destruction.

Gallery label, November 2004

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Catalogue entry

Covehithe Church 1983


Oil on canvas 863 x 1118 (34 x 44)

Inscribed in white oil paint 'John Piper' b.r.
Inscribed on the back in black oil paint 'Covehithe church | (Suffolk) | 1983', right centre

Presented by the artist 1984

John Piper, Tate Gallery, London, Nov. 1983-Jan. 1984 (170)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-84, London 1986, p.304 (repr.)

Piper made sketches of St Andrew's, Covehithe, south of Lowestoft, in 1983 during the summer preceding his major retrospective at the Tate Gallery. He was eighty. The painting was included in the exhibition and presented by the artist. As a friend and collaborator of Benjamin Britten, he was familiar with Suffolk and had depicted its village churches in Three Suffolk Towers (Tate Gallery T00494) in 1958. Piper's photograph of the church at Covehithe was used in Norman Scarfe's Shell Guide to Suffolk (3rd ed, London 1976, p.70), of which Piper was the series editor. The view is from a similar angle to that shown in the painting, though slightly more acute and more focused on the open arch of the chancel (Tate Gallery Archive, Piper photographs, 'Suffolk', no.65.1.1). The oil painting followed the view taken for two watercolours: Covehithe Church, 1983 and Covehithe II, 1983 (repr. in col, John Piper, Romantic Places, exh. cat., Marlborough Fine Art, London 1983, pp.23,24, nos.39, 52). It is the conspicuous but romantic dereliction - with no sign of the medieval town which the church once served - that is the central subject of the painting. The Perpendicular nave and chancel had been ruined in the Civil War, and Piper emphasised the view through the arches to the sky. By contrast, Covehithe Church does not show the tiny brick church within, built in 1672 and attached to the surviving Decorated tower. This complex has been threatened by erosion from the sea since the mid-1980s.

Covehithe Church follows the artist's practice of creating a finished oil in the studio from sketches. The canvas was prepared in an orthodox way with white primer, but it is slightly unusual for Piper that it has been squared-up in pencil to facilitate enlargement. The height is divided into sixths and the width into eighths; the top of the far end of the nave rises half way up, just as the corner of the aisle is half way across. The basic forms were also mapped out in pencil - especially visible for the tower - before the black and white paint was very loosely, and in places thinly, applied both with brushes and rags. Over this the broad areas of the building were painted in ochre and Prussian blue, with the foreground worked in vivid green which in places is thickly applied. The architectural details, which closely follow those of the watercolour of the same title, were added in black and followed a method used in earlier paintings such as Three Suffolk Towers, 1958. Ruined churches were a recurrent theme for Piper, returning to prominence in the 1980s as an echo of his earlier topographical concerns.

Matthew Gale
August 1996


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