John Piper

Three Suffolk Towers


Not on display

John Piper 1903–1992
Ink, watercolour and gouache on paper
Support 1: 702 × 375 mm; support 2: 698 × 413 mm;
support 3: 800 × 400 mm;
frame: 830 × 1304 × 75 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1962

Display caption

The three churches, all built with flint, are at Laxfield, Walberswick and Stoke-by-Nayland. Piper drew them while staying nearby at Aldeburgh, rehearsing a Monteverdi opera he had designed for the Aldeburgh Festival.

Piper had worked with John Betjeman since before the war on the Shell County Guides, encouraging interest in the architecture of parish churches, which they discovered and described. These drawings were framed together by Piper, who often combined such buildings, sometimes in the same print or design. They were used, along with a fourth drawing of Eye church tower, as an endpaper for the Shell Guide to Suffolk 1960.

Gallery label, July 2008

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Catalogue entry

Three Suffolk Towers 1958


Three works on paper mounted together
823 x 1280 (32 3/8 x 50 3/8) overall mount

(i) Watercolour, ink and gouache
702 x 375 (27 5/8 x 14 3/4) irregular

(ii) Watercolour, ink and gouache
698 x 413 (27 1/2 x 16 1/4) irregular

(iii) Watercolour, ink and gouache
800 x 400 (31 1/2 x 15 3/4) irregular

(i) Inscribed in black ink 'Laxfield 1 6 [?58]' b.l.
Inscribed on back in chalk 'Laxfield' and in ink '1958'

(ii) Inscribed in black ink '[...]alberswick 12 6 58' b.l. and 'John Piper' b.r.
Inscribed on back in chalk '3 Walberswick' and in ink '1958'

(iii) Inscribed in white paint 'Stoke by Nayland' b.l.
Inscribed on back in chalk '4 Stoke by Nayland' and in ink '1958'

Chantrey purchase from the artist 1962

Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London, May-Aug. 1962 (620)
John Piper, Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, Sept.-Oct. 1968 (45)
John Piper: Painting in Coloured Light: An Exhibition of Stained Glass and Related Works, Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, Dec. 1982-Jan. 1983 (34)

Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.524

Royal Academy Illustrated, London 1962, p.54
John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery, London 1962, p.259
John Rothenstein, 'The Tate Gallery', Ambassador, no.11, 1962, p.53

All aspects of rural churches provided Piper with recurrent subject matter. In 1958 he contributed illustrations, photographs and texts on Oxfordshire to the Collins Guide to English Parish Churches (London 1958, revised 1968 and 1980) edited by John Betjeman; the section on Suffolk was written by the Revd C.C.S. Linnell. At the same time Three Suffolk Towers demonstrated Piper's move from views of churches to summaries of their characters in the towers. This became a regular pattern, implying architectural comparisons linked to local conditions. He also made the lithograph of Three Somerset Towers in 1958 (repr. in col., Orde Levinson, John Piper: The Complete Graphic Works, A Catalogue Raisonné 1923-1983, London 1987, p.51, no.107; revised as 'Quality and Experiment': The Prints of John Piper; A Catalogue Raisonné 1923-1991, London 1996, p.69, no.107), which brought together different buildings in one fictive space, a scheme used in later oil paintings such as Two Suffolk Towers, Alpheton and Stansfield, 1969 (repr. in col. Richard Ingrams and John Piper, Piper's Places: John Piper in England and Wales, London 1983, p.18, fig.7) and Six Somerset Towers, 1980 (repr. in col. ibid., pp.16-17, fig.6).

The inscriptions on the Three Suffolk Towers identify the locations and show that at least two were made in the first half of June 1958. Watercolour, gouache and ink were laid over preliminary sketching in pencil, and colour was dominated by ochre and brown, blue and green with architectural details picked out in black ink and highlighted in white gouache. The pencil underdrawing of Laxfield shows that it was drawn in perspective before the frontal elevation was isolated. This may place it at the inception of the series. The artist stated that the watercolours were: 'All painted on the spot ... in the intervals of rehearsals at the Aldeburgh Festival' (letter to Tate Gallery, 9 July 1962). Speed is evident in the handling, just as it is in the cutting of the taped edge of the paper (cropping the 'W' from Walberswick); this was a departure from the artist's habit of enlarging watercolours in the studio. The artist mounted the different sized sheets together, to the severe restriction of Stoke-by-Nayland.

Piper's sorties to make these watercolours took him far and wide. From Aldeburgh, All Saints, Laxfield is about 20 miles north-west, St Andrew Walberswick 12 miles north along the coast, and St Mary, Stoke-by-Nayland around 40 miles south-west, between Ipswich and Colchester. Each watercolour showed the strong progression of tiers from the west door to the open balustrading, enclosed by the diminishing buttressing. Laxfield and Walberswick have fine fifteenth-century towers with Perpendicular windows; Piper contrasted the vertical tracery - and the arcading at Laxfield - with the pattern of the flintwork. The effect of the painting of Stoke-by-Nayland is more robust, presumably because the church as a whole is a much larger structure. He must have been aware that it had appeared in various works by Constable and Linnell called it 'the finest church in Constable country' (Betjeman ed., Collins Guide to English Parish Churches, London 1980, p.388). Piper's photograph of the church (Tate Gallery Archive, Piper photographs, 'Suffolk', no.132.1.12) was used in the Shell Guide to Suffolk, (by Norman Scarfe, 3rd ed, London 1976, p.160) of which he was the general editor. The painter returned to churches at Eye and Redenhall (in Norfolk), both close geographically and architecturally to Laxfield - completed by Southwold (near Walberswick) - for the later Three Suffolk Towers 1962-3 (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, repr. John Piper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1983, no.151, p.132). His numbers on the reverse of two of the Tate's watercolours suggest the existence of at least one other painting from which the three were selected. It is notable that the format of Three Suffolk Churches, 1958 eradicated the key topographical factor of relative size; in reality the tower at Stoke-by-Nayland is 120 feet high as compared to that at Walberswick which is 85 feet (Nikolaus Pevsner, Buildings of England: Suffolk, Harmondsworth, 1961, revised by Enid Radcliffe, 1974, pp.439,472).

Piper was at Aldeburgh with designs for Il Ballo delle Ingrate for Benjamin Britten's English Opera Group. It was produced by John Cranko to music by Monteverdi and first performed on 13 June 1958, the day after he painted at Walberswick. As Michael Northen has shown ('Designs for Theatre', exh. cat. Tate 1983, pp.31-5), the painter had first made set designs for Britten in 1946 (The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne) and in the early 1950s became a director of the English Opera Group which was closely bound up with the Aldeburgh Festival. Il Ballo delle Ingrate followed Piper's collaboration on Britten's The Turn of the Screw, 1954 (La Fenice, Venice), for which Myfanwy Piper wrote the libretto, and on The Prince of the Pagodas, 1957 (Royal Ballet).

The choice of subject for Three Suffolk Churches brought together topography, a rural setting for art and Piper's contemporary concerns with ecclesiastical stained glass. He and Patrick Reyntiens selected A Small Anthology of Modern Stained Glass for the Aldeburgh Festival of 1955. Commenting upon the later set of Three Suffolk Towers in Cardiff, David Fraser Jenkins has also pointed out that the side-by-side arrangement follows that of Piper's windows for Oundle School (1954) which show figures of Christ with different attributes (repr. S. John Woods, John Piper: Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, London 1955, fig.190). The slight variations within repeated forms may have appeared analogous.

Matthew Gale
August 1996


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