John Piper

Seaton Delaval


Not on display

John Piper 1903–1992
Oil paint on canvas on wood
Support: 711 × 883 mm
frame: 942 × 1117 × 83 mm
Presented by Sir Kenneth Clark (later Lord Clark of Saltwood) through the Contemporary Art Society 1946

Display caption

The baroque castle of Seaton Delaval, Northumberland, was built by John Vanbrugh between 1718 and 1729 and destroyed by fire in 1822. Piper visited the castle in 1941. He had previously made records of major buildings in anticipation of their destruction through bombing or modernisation. He had also recorded bomb-damage, and found parallels between the ruined castle and these recent subjects. The image seems to be both a nostalgic lament for a lost time and a statement about the present. Piper described the castle’s colouring as ‘ochre and flame licked red, pock-marked and stained... incredibly up-to-date: very much of our times’.

Gallery label, July 2007

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Catalogue entry

Seaton Delaval 1941


Oil on canvas laid down on plywood

714 x 888 (28 1/8 x 35)

Inscribed in white oil paint 'John Piper' b.r. and, on back in black oil paint, 'Seaton Delaval, | Northum'd | John Piper |. 1941 | Oil ['35' crossed out] x 28'

Presented by Sir Kenneth Clark through the Contemporary Art Society 1946

Purchased from the artist by Sir Kenneth Clark

unidentified exhibition, British Institute of Adult Education, London 1942 (252.C, no catalogue traced)
Engelsk Nutidskonst, British Council tour of Sweden 1947-8, toured by Riksforbundet for Bildande Konst to Stockholm, Jan.-Feb. 1948, Malmo, Feb.-March, Gothenburg, March, Sundsvall, April (43)
John Piper: Retrospective Exhibition, Marlborough New London Gallery, London, March 1964 (56)
John Piper, Tate Gallery, London, Nov. 1983-Jan. 1984 (40, repr.)
Home and Away, Tate Gallery Liverpool, 24 Nov. 1995 - 20 April 1997 (no cat. nos.)

John Steegman and Dorothy Stroud, The Artist and the Country House, London 1949, pp.54,107 pl.94
Hesketh Hubbard, One Hundred Years of British Painting 1851-1951, London 1951, p.279, pl.122
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.523
Francis Watson, 'John Piper', Arts Review, vol.29, no.22, 28 Oct. 1977, p.649
Erle Money, 'A Very English Artist: The Retrospective Exhibition of the Work of John Piper', Contemporary Review, vol.244, no.1417, Feb. 1984, p.91
Frances Spalding, 'The Ravages of War and Weather', Times Literary Supplement, 23 Dec. 1984, p.1433
Frances Spalding, British Art Since 1900, London 1986, p.129, repr. p.135, pl.111 (col.)
Malcolm Yorke, The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists and their Times, London 1988, pp.84-6, repr. p.85
Virginia Button, 'The Aesthetic of Decline: English Neo-Romanticism c.1935-1956', unpublished thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1991, p.80, fig.32

Also reproduced: John Betjeman, John Piper, Harmondsworth 1944, pl.1 (in col. as Seaton Delaval, The Central Block)
Richard Seddon, 'Artists of Note: John Piper', Artist, vol.24 no.5, Jan. 1944, p.110
John Russell, From Sickert to 1948: The Achievement of the Contemporary Art Society, London 1948, p.109, pl.100
Georg Svensson, 'Engelsk nutickonst', Konstrevy, vol.24, no.2, p.88
S. John Woods, John Piper: Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, London 1955, pl.74
Francis Askham, The Gay Delavals, London 1955, dust jacket (in col.)
Charles Harrison, 'England's Climate', Studies in British Art 1: Towards a Modern Art World, Brian Allen (ed.), New Haven and London, 1995, p.221, fig.47

Piper's painting of the ruined shell of Seaton Delaval is closely bound up with two other sites: Blagdon and Windsor. In the summer of 1941, he was asked to paint Blagdon, Viscount Ridley's house in Northumberland. According to David Fraser Jenkins (John Piper, forthcoming), his invitation was at the behest of Sir Kenneth Clark who had prepared it as a trial for the much more august task of painting Windsor Castle for the Queen. Like the Recording Britain project, the Windsor commission (which materialised in August 1941) was to produce work in anticipation of destruction rather than as a response to it, but, as David Mellor has argued ('A History and Outline', Recording Britain: A Pictorial Domesday of Pre-War Britain, London 1990, pp.14-16), it effectively constituted part of Piper's official War work. The Blagdon invitation was arranged on 9 July 1941. The letter to the artist anticipated his interest in Seaton Delaval (letter from Jasper Ridley, artist's archive, quoted by Jenkins, John Piper, forthcoming), and Piper later told the Tate that he 'was taken to Seaton Delaval by Ursula Ridley' (letter 15 July 1958).

Vanbrugh built the Baroque Castle at Seaton Delaval on the Northumbrian coast between 1718 and 1729 for Admiral George Delaval. According to Nikolaus Pevsner (The Buildings of England: Northumberland, Harmondsworth 1957, p.286), the square central block, 75 x 75 feet, is set behind a forecourt twice as wide and 180 feet deep which is flanked by service wings. One of his last buildings, it is widely regarded as one of Vanbrugh's most powerful, benefiting - in the architect's words - from 'The admiral ... not being disposed to starve the design at all'. Piper himself reported this in his article, 'Seaton Delaval', published in Orion: A Miscellany (no.1, 1945, pp.43-7) and slightly abridged in his Buildings and Prospects (London 1948, pp.87-8). There he matched the legendary profligacy and eccentricity of the Delaval family to the flamboyant theatricality of Vanbrugh's architecture: 'this vast old war-horse of a house was built with a splendid sense of drama, and acts up' (Piper 1945, p.44). He catalogued its destruction, as in 1822 'a major fire made of the house a grandiloquent ruin' (ibid.). The results remained striking, especially in the central block: 'Ochre and flame-licked red, pock-marked and stained in purplish umber and black, the colour is extremely up-to-date: very much of our times' (ibid., p.43). Thus Piper - though enthusiastic about the results - bitterly linked the ruin to the blitz.

The severe north face of the gutted central block was the main subject of Piper's attention. Although seen in mid summer, this facade was turned against the light. The unorthodox combinations of heavily rusticated columns against the massive core with its varied skyline proved more compelling than the porticoed garden front. This may also be because of its simultaneously grand and decayed courtyard. Piper recalled: 'The centre wing was ruinous inside, and hay was being made (and large haycocks standing) in the forecourt' (letter to Tate Gallery, 15 July 1958). Wash drawings, probably from amongst the 'sketches made at the time of my first visit' (ibid.), show the hay before the 'North front, early morning'. They were published with the Orion article (Piper 1945, p.46), and they convey the grandeur of the site. There were at least two other paintings. One showed the main block from an acute angle (present whereabouts unknown, repr. ibid., p.45), which served to accentuate the flight of the steps. However, the modulation of the facade was shown to greater effect in the more frontal view adopted for the Tate painting. This is repeated in a small ink and watercolour sketch (repr. Richard Ingrams and John Piper, Piper's Places: John Piper in England and Wales, London 1983, p.66, pl.50) which is noted as a 'record sketch of the oil painting' (ibid., p.180).

The technique for Seaton Delaval was unusual, but just as with St Mary le Port, Bristol (Tate Gallery N05718), Piper established a physical parallel between the ruined building and the picture surface. By gluing the canvas to board with size he established a firm base on which to apply a heavy white ground over about half the surface. This bore the scraping that is so evident and absorbed the oil washes which also extended over the bare canvas. At this stage the design was further secured by the scoring of an 8 x 8 grid (creating rectangles 3 1/2 x 4 1/2 inches) with linking diagonals through to the white surface. Conservation analysis suggests that, because it was applied so late in the process, this was not squaring-up in the orthodox sense, but served as part of the composition itself (Tate Gallery conservation files). However, the grid preceded the delineation of the architecture in black, for which it provided a basis; it located the left side of the building (one unit in) and the paired columns to the left (falling on the third line from the left) and to the right (abutting the sixth line) of the entrance. It may be that this intervention was necessary to control the flamboyant architecture, but it also substantiates Woods's general remark that Piper 'wanted to paint a house as if he were designing it, understanding not just its appearance but its anatomy and its sentiment' (S. John Woods, John Piper: Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, London 1955, p.12). Further colour accents were applied, notably Mars red on the facade and phythalocyanine blue in the sky (Tate Gallery conservation files), and the whole was enveloped in a romantic darkness in contrast to the season. Indeed, the black in the sky at the left was applied with a knife onto the unprimed canvas, a process which subsequently resulted in an efflorescence. Despite the use of the grid, about an inch was cut from the left side which is, consequently, slightly cramped.

Seaton Delaval was a powerful summary of Piper's dramatic vision of the early 1940s. It combined his experience of wartime devastation with his search for the picturesque ruin. As such it added Vanbrugh to what David Mellor has called 'the historical retrieval of the "lost" Romantic period and its artists, Palmer, Blake, Fuseli and Cotman ... in which Piper stood alongside Betjeman, Grigson, and Humphrey Jennings' (David Mellor, 'The Body & the Land, Neo-Romantic Art and Culture', A Paradise Lost, exh. cat., Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987, p.36). Piper painted other Vanburgh buildings, notably Castle Howard in the following year, and his contribution to this retrieval included the book British Romantic Artists (London 1942). The importance of Seaton Delaval was underlined by Sir Kenneth Clark, who used his collection as a means to promote the work of his favoured artists. He acquired the painting immediately and - according to a label on the reverse - lent it to an unspecified British Institute of Adult Education exhibition. It also served as the first reproduction in Betjeman's 1944 monograph, where it was one of three of Clark's paintings, who was also the general editor of the series. It made heroic the dilapidation of the country house that had been one of Clark's motivations in establishing the Recording Britain project, it also served as a consummate example of Piper's work just as he was being positioned for the topographical commissions at Windsor and, in 1942, at Sir Osbert Sitwell's Renishaw.

Matthew Gale
August 1996

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