John Piper



Not on display

John Piper 1903–1992
Watercolour, gouache, ink and graphite on paper
Support: 275 × 380 mm
Purchased 1990

Display caption

Piper's landscapes never include people, and the figures in his stained glass designs are almost always copied from other artists, but he has always drawn from the nude. Later he also photographed nudes and from 1967 published collages of these as screenprints. This wartime drawing is unusually large for his life studies. The figure was drawn out of doors, and she is given the illumination of an extensive landscape before a storm, or even during a storm. As with Moore's carvings of reclining nudes, there is a sense that woman as source of life is a part of the structure of the earth.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

John Piper 1903-1992

T05835 Nude 1942

Watercolour, gouache, ink and pencil on wove paper
275 x 380 (10 13/16 x 15)

Inscribed very faintly in ink 'John Piper' b.r.
Two typed labels on reverse read, 'Sir John Betjeman | WANTAGE' and 'JOHN PIPER | NUDE 1942'

Purchased from Jonathan Clark Ltd., London (Grant-in-Aid) 1990

Gift of the artist to John Betjeman, 1966; sold posthumously, 1984; ...; bt from John Rothery by Stephen Lacey, 1985; bt by Jonathan Clarke 1990

John Piper: Retrospective Exhibition, Marlborough New London Gallery, London March 1964 (58, as Reclining Figure)
John Piper: Retrospective Exhibition, Arts Centre, New Metropole, Folkestone, Oct.-Nov. 1970 (26, repr.)
Exhibition of Modern Paintings, Jonathan Clarke Ltd., London, Spring 1990 (p.49, repr. in col.)
The Painted Nude: From Etty to Auerbach, Tate Gallery, London, Aug.-Dec. 1992, Norwich Castle Museum, May-Sept. 1993 (not in cat.)

John Betjeman, John Piper, Harmondsworth 1944, pl.22
S. John Woods, John Piper: Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, London 1955, pl.204
Peter Fuller, 'John Piper: Neo-Romanticism in the 1980s', Modern Painters, vol.1, no.2, Summer 1988, p.19

Nude was painted on off-white wove paper which has discoloured from extended contact with acidic board. The perforations along the upper edge (the left and bottom are deckle edges) show that it was a sketchbook page. It is of the same dimensions and characteristics as those used for the three Figure Drawings (Tate Gallery T05810, T05811 and T05812). The method differs from these earlier sketches, in the progressive layers of pencil, watercolour and black ink. White gouache was used as highlighting on the forearm, in the hair and in the landscape above the head. The fine details of the face (complemented by the colouring of the lips and eyes), the hair and shoes were drawn in ink, while the surface was scratched in areas of the background (near the raised knee and along the upper edge). It has been suggested that the technique may reflect an interest in Georges Rouault (Anthony West, John Piper, London 1979, p.71). As Virginia Button has pointed out ('The Aesthetic of Decline: English Neo-Romanticism c.1935-1956', unpublished thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1991, p.131), Piper had written favourably about the tragic sense of the figure in the work of Rouault in a review of a Leicester Galleries exhibition earlier in the year (Spectator, vol.168, 16 Jan. 1942, p.58).

A number of closely comparable life drawings survive, including Two Nudes (artist's estate, repr. John Piper, exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London 1983, p.94, no.42), and two single Nude Studies (repr. in col. John Piper, exh. cat. Jonathan Clark Ltd., London, Summer 1992, pp.11,34). The last of these is the same dimensions as the Tate Nude. Both may be dated fairly securely by the quick sketches illustrating the postscript - 'Truly I have been doing nudes' - on Piper's letter to John Betjeman of 15 May 1942 (Betjeman Papers, University of Victoria, British Columbia). In all of the drawings Piper mixed ink with watercolour or gouache which, as David Fraser Jenkins has observed (exh. cat. Tate 1983, p.94), was applied rhythmically. At the same time, all depict the nude in recumbent abandon. The pose in Nude - lying back with a raised knee, exposed stomach and breasts - is close to that of the further figure in Two Nudes, which Jenkins has identified as deriving from a sketch of 1939 (ibid.). In both watercolours, the pose can be seen as embodying the contours of the landscape setting. This was an analogy reversed in the anthropomorphism of Piper's Glaciated Rocks, Nant Ffrancon (Tate Gallery T06446). It was explored more widely in the work of contemporaries, such as the carved reclining figures and shelter drawings of Henry Moore, with whom Piper had exhibited at Temple Newsam, Leeds in 1941.

Piper eroticised the figure/landscape analogy in Nude. The reclining body, decked in fashionable trappings (high-heel shoes and pink lipstick), was vulnerably laid open with only diaphanous material veiling her sex. The painter brought together in the model, identifiable as his wife, both traditions of earth mother and of sexual fantasy associated with the nude. Although anonymous, such intimacy (again like the Figure Drawings) was soon given a public aspect, as Nude was reproduced in Betjeman's John Piper (Harmondsworth 1944). As the only figure work there it represented the artist's versatility. It also demonstrated, as David Mellor has suggested ('The Body & the Land, Neo-Romantic Art and Culture', A Paradise Lost, exh. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987, pp.22-4), a regenerative potential in the return to the land in the depths of the war. This was made more powerful, as it had been painted alongside Piper's images of the destruction of Bath, such as All Saints Chapel, Bath (Tate Gallery, N05719).

When given the painting in April 1966, Betjeman wrote enthusiastically of, 'the intense pleasure your [?splendid] and deeply loving portrait of Goldilegz gives me' (Candida Lycett Green ed., John Betjeman: Letters, vol.2, London 1996, p.303). He specified that it had stood on the chimneypiece at Fawley Bottom and assumed the same position at his own house in Wantage, The Mead. In a letter to the compiler, the poet's son Paul Betjeman recalled the work in his parents' home, and added: 'I would think it likely that my mother sold the picture after my father's death' (letter postmarked 12 Sept. 1996, Tate Gallery cataloguing files).

Matthew Gale
November 1996


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