John Piper

Glaciated Rocks, Nant Ffrancon


Not on display

John Piper 1903–1992
Ink and watercolour on paper
Purchased with funds provided by the Helena and Kenneth Levy Bequest 1991

Display caption

Many critics believe that Piper's gouaches of Snowdonia, an example of which the Tate has lacked until now, are among his best works. Their rather sombre aspect could be associated with the artist's experience of the destructiveness of the Second World War. As an official War Artist, he had recently recorded the effects of war in other works, such as the Tate's watercolour of the blitzed, 'All Saints Chapel, Bath' 1942. (N05719). Piper produced a resumé of his work in the screenprint portfolio, 'Stones and Bones' 1978 (P07363) and included a number of Welsh mountain images, indicating their importance for him.

Gallery label, August 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

John Piper 1903-1992

T06446 Glaciated Rocks, Nant Ffrancon c.1945-6

Watercolour and ink on wove paper
549 x 707 (21 9/16 x 27 7/8)

Inscribed in white chalk 'John Piper' b.r.
Inscribed on back in pencil 'Glaciated rocks | (Nant Ffrancon)'

Purchased from Peter Nahum Fine Art, London with funds provided by the Helena and Kenneth Levy Bequest 1991

Purchased at Buchholz Gallery, New York, 1948 by Hollis M. Baker; anon. sale (Hollis M. Baker), Sotheby's, London, 12 Oct. 1988 (lot no.248, repr.) bt Peter Nahum

John Piper, Buchholz Gallery, New York, Feb. 1948 (21, as Glaciated Rocks)
John Piper in Wales, Davies Memorial Gallery, Newtown, Powys, July-Aug. 1990, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Sept.-Oct., Oriel Mostyn, Llandudno, Nov.-Dec (18, repr. in col. p.30)
Modern Painters: A Memorial Exhibition for Peter Fuller, Manchester City Art Gallery, March-May 1991 (24)
The Helena and Kenneth Levy Bequest, Tate Gallery, London, Sept. 1991-Jan. 1992 (no number, repr.)

Anthony R. Vettise, 'John Piper in Wales', Arts Review, vol.42, double issue nos. 16 & 17, 10 & 24 Aug. 1990, p.441
Catherine Kinley, The Helena and Kenneth Levy Bequest, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1991 [p.7], repr.

S. John Woods, John Piper: Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, London 1955, pl.118 (as Glaciated Rocks, Nant Ffrancon, 15 1/2 x 20)

Before painting, the artist had taped the off-white wove paper of Glaciated Rocks, Nant Ffrancon to board and strips of tape remain as part of the work at the top and bottom and the right side. The image is largely in ink and watercolour. Gum arabic was added to the yellow ochre which extends across much of the lower half. Black chalk or conté was rubbed over in order to convey the subtle swell of the rocks; the surface was also scratched, possibly with a dry pen. After completion, the sheet was glued to a poor quality card from which it has now been parted (Tate Gallery conservation files). The watercolour was made from sketches made before the motif. At least one other finished version exists, also called Glaciated Rocks, Nant Ffrancon, c.1944 (393 x 514 mm, private collection, repr. John Piper in Wales, exh. cat., Welsh Committee of the Arts Council, 1964, pl.24), which is extremely close in detail if broader in handling. This is an example of how the artist developed a single motif in a number of works.

Although the presence of nature was evident in most of his picturesque views, Piper only began to concentrate upon the untamed landscape in the middle of the war. His painting of Gordale Scar, 1943 (Alan Clark, repr. John Piper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1983, p.112, no.102), from sketches made in August 1942, adapted the heavily worked surface of his blitz paintings to natural phenomena. It has been seen by David Fraser Jenkins as both a homage to James Ward's monumental canvas of the same Yorkshire fissure (Tate Gallery N01043) and as a prelude to Piper's paintings in Snowdonia (exh. cat. Tate 1983, p.106). The artist had visited Wales in the 1930s and painted Hafod in Cardiganshire in 1939. He was sent to Snowdonia in 1943 by the War Artists Committee, and rented a succession of cottages in there in 1945-c.1949. The first of these, at Maes Caradog during the summer of 1945, was followed by one at Pentre (from October 1945 to September 1946); both are in the Nant Ffrancon valley. For the artist, the result was a transfer from the country landscape of the picturesque to the wild landscape of the 'sublime' - the eighteenth-century term expressing an awe in the face of the power of nature. Snowdonia, where man had left little trace, drew from Piper a response informed by but surpassing his appreciation of the topographical painters about whom he had written in British Romantic Artists (London 1942). He was impressed by Richard Wilson's intimacy with the landscape in painting the 'three ideal views' in Snowdonia (Richard Ingrams and John Piper, Piper's Places: John Piper in England and Wales, London 1983, p.105), but this observation also tells of Piper's own knowledge of the region, visited on foot or bicycle and studied in geological and topographical books.

The move to landscape may be related to the figure studies that Piper made alongside his other work. In particular, the technique and identification implicit in the 1942 Nude (Tate Gallery T05835) reciprocates the anthropomorphism found in Glaciated Rocks, Nant Ffrancon, in which the smoothed forms are highlighted like a recumbent female torso. Jenkins (exh. cat. Tate 1983, p.107) has drawn attention to the coincidence with Kenneth Clark's support for the 'pathetic fallacy' - equating the landscape with human emotion - expressed in Landscape into Art (London 1948). As Virginia Button has noted ('The Aesthetic of Decline: English Neo-Romanticism c.1935-1956', unpublished thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1991, p.98), Clark had already spoken in these terms in a radio discussion with Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore and V.S. Pritchett in 1941 ('The Living Image - Art and Life', Listener, 13 Nov.1941). The quotation from Piper's notes written near the summit of the Glyders might almost be a description of the scene in this painting: 'curious feeling in presence of giant pale boulders [...] coffin slab and trunk shaped, disappearing at close range into grey invisibility. The affectionate nature of the mountain ... not changed by the lonely, closed-in sensation induced by the mist...' ('Glyder Fawr, Glyder Fach, Aug. 18 (46)', Piper Archive). Jenkins has suggested (in conversation, May 1996) that the Tate painting may show the smoother rocks in the alluvial valley, but the technique relates closely to the similarly sized Rocks in a Streambed, 1944 (repr. in col. John Piper in Wales, exh. cat., Davies Memorial Gallery, Newtown, Powys, 1990, p.30, no.19) and the larger Slopes of The Glyders, 1943 (Government Art Collection, repr. in col., ibid, p.29, no.16). Glaciated Rocks, Nant Ffrancon differs from these in that the concentration upon the rocks makes it impossible to judge the scale, an ambiguity summarising the dwarfing force of nature and the exclusion of human intervention.

The Welsh landscapes of the sublime were first exhibited in 1948 in the Leicester Galleries and in the Buchholz Gallery, New York, where Glaciated Rocks, Nant Ffrancon was included. As Jenkins has observed (exh. cat. Tate 1983, p.108), they emerged just after the stylistic debate between abstraction and 'Neo-Romanticism' was resurrected by Robin Ironside's Painting since 1939 (London 1947), and Piper was grouped with artists such as Graham Sutherland - also working in Wales - John Minton and John Craxton.

Matthew Gale
November 1996


You might like

In the shop