John Piper

Yarnton Monument


Not on display

John Piper 1903–1992
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 629 × 753 mm
frame: 820 × 938 × 90 mm
Bequeathed by Mrs Ernestine Carter 1984

Display caption

Jacobean and Georgian church monuments are a frequent subject in Piper’s sketches and paintings, and this work is an excellent example of his use of colour and light to create a ‘romantic’ portrait of them, in which the figures almost come alive. The monument is in honour of Sir Thomas Spencer (died 1684), at Yarnton Church in Oxfordshire.

Gallery label, May 2007

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Catalogue entry

This page comprises two separate full catalogue texts.

John Piper 1903-1992

T03922 Yarnton Monument 1948

Oil on canvas laid on board
630 x 753 (24 3/4 x 29 5/8)

Inscribed on label on back of frame in ink '(oil) | YARNTON MONUMENT | John Piper' and in another hand 'Exhibited | Leicester Galleries | Dece[...] 194[?8]' top centre

Bequeathed by Mrs Ernestine Carter and acquired 1984

Purchased from the artist through the Leicester Galleries, London by Mrs Carter 1948

Recent Paintings by Brooke Farrar, New Paintings and Drawings by John Piper, 'Scene de Ballet' by Beldy, Leicester Galleries, London, Dec. 1948 (15, as Favourite Churches I: Yarnton, Oxfordshire)
John Piper: Retrospective Exhibition, Marlborough New London Gallery, London, March 1964 (71, repr., as Monuments, Yarnton)

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984-86, London 1988, pp.230-1 (repr.)

S. John Woods, John Piper: Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, London 1955, pl.163 (as Monuments, Yarnton, 1946)

Yarnton is five miles north of Oxford and its church of St Bartholomew contains the tombs of the Spencer family of the adjacent Yarnton Manor. Piper visited it in the process of compiling the Shell Guide to Oxfordshire (London 1938) and, as Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1984-86 (London 1988, p.230) indicates, a gouache of c.1937-8 concentrating on the same tomb as that in Yarnton Monument is inscribed Yarnton: composition by John Nost (Shell Mex British Petroleum, unpublished catalogue no.618). The gouache was not reproduced but the tomb was dated to 1712 in the Guide's listing by Katherine Esdaile; John Rhodes of Oxfordshire County Museum has dated it to c.1684 (letter to Tate Gallery, 18 Jan. 1988).

Churches dominated Piper's official work during the war and in its aftermath he turned to those which had escaped destruction; Yarnton Monument was first exhibited as one of his Favourite Churches. David Fraser Jenkins has noted that the group of related works 'are souvenirs of "church crawls" often undertaken with John Betjeman' (John Piper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1983, p.114). Rather than geography, the common theme uniting the 1946-8 paintings was the family tomb. The reinterpretation of the work of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century sculptors such as Rysbrack and Grinling Gibbons constituted 'a pioneering rediscovery of English sculpture' (ibid.). As well as an antiquarian interest, this concentration reflected a concern with the survival in rural areas of religious, social and cultural traditions threatened in the war and exemplified in the ghostly remnant of a monument in St Mary le Port, Bristol (Tate Gallery N05718).

Piper's approach was at once accurate and moody. An interest in the process of architectural ageing had been explored in his text 'Pleasing Decay' (Architectural Review, Sept.1947, republished in Piper, Buildings and Prospects, London 1948), and he told Ingrams that the monuments 'made such beautiful compositions of lights and darks' (Richard Ingrams and John Piper, Piper's Places: John Piper in England and Wales, London 1983). They were generally shown obliquely, varying their classical symmetry and conveying their position in church aisles. This is especially true of Monument, Redgrave, 1947, King Monument, Ockham, 1947 and Coventry Monuments, Croome d'Abitot, 1948 (repr. S. John Woods, John Piper: Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, London 1955, pls.164,166,168) all of which were shown in New York in early 1948. These compositions share with Yarnton Monument the off-setting of the main tomb against a smaller and plainer area.

As was his standard practice, Piper made Yarnton Monument in the studio from sketches, at least one of which survives (artist's estate). He may also have used photographs, as two undated views taken from the same angle but slightly further away survive (Tate Gallery Archive, Piper photographs, 'Oxfordshire', nos.129.5.3,4). A large study, Monument at Yarnton, Oxfordshire, 1948 (British Council, repr. British Council Collection, London 1984, p.111) was completed in ink and watercolour. The mottled effect achieved by the use of a wax resist seems to have fed into the working of the oil painting. The canvas for Yarnton Monument was laid down on board, but this fixing has proved insecure and blistering and lifting have occurred. The artist treated the surface rather roughly: the white oil ground was scraped off at the edges, and the thickly applied oil paint was rubbed down; some drying cracks are evident. Impasto was used for the grey statue at the right and the ochre seen between the curtains, while the areas above the screen and to the right of the tomb have deeply scored cross-hatching. Liquid outlines defined the features and washes of black were rubbed across the surface to pick up texture. The washes are associated with the diagonal planes which fall across the curtain and through the main statue, and which are found in related works. The limitation of the palette is typical of Piper of this period, and emphasises the enclosure of the church.

The monument paintings were first shown at Buchholz Gallery in New York in February 1948. The publisher John Carter had helped with the 1945 Piper exhibition there (Tate Gallery Acquisitions, pp.230-1) and his wife was listed as the lender of Yarnton Monument to the London exhibition of related work at the Leicester Galleries in December. The composition was adapted during that year as the three-colour lithograph Yarnton Monument, Oxon, 1948 (repr. Orde Levinson, John Piper: The Complete Graphic Works, A Catalogue Raisonné 1923-1983, London 1987, p.59, no.70; revised as 'Quality and Experiment': The Prints of John Piper; A Catalogue Raisonné 1923-1991, London 1996, p.40, no.70) commissioned by Rex Nan Kivell of the Redfern Gallery. According to Tate Gallery Acquisitions it was one of a pair - the other being of Sutton Waldron, Dorset - made at the Central School of Art and Design, probably by George Devenish (Tate Gallery Acquisitions, pp.230-1). These followed the sporadic production of lithographs by the artist since 1936, when he had founded Contemporary Lithographs Ltd, with Robert Wellington of the Curwen Press, in order to make modern works more accessible. As distinct from the earlier unlimited runs, Yarnton Monument, Oxon was issued in an edition of 50 (Levinson 1996, p.59).

Matthew Gale
August 1996

Full catalogue entry from The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84

John Piper born 1903

T03922 Yarnton Monument 1947-8

Oil on canvas laid on board 629 x 755 (24 3/4 x 29 3/4)
Inscribed ‘(oil) | YARNTON MONUMENT | John Piper' on back at top
Bequeathed by Mrs Ernestine Carter and acquired 1984
Prov: Purchased 1948 from Leicester Galleries by Mrs Carter who died 1983
Exh: Recent Paintings by Brooke Farrar, New Paintings and Drawings by John Piper, ‘Scene de Ballet' by Beldy, Leicester Galleries, Dec. 1948 (15 as ‘Favourite Churches I: Yarnton, Oxfordshire'); John Piper Retrospective Exhibition, Marlborough New London Gallery, March 1964 (71, repr., as ‘Monuments, Yarnton')
Lit: Orde Levinson, John Piper, The Complete Graphic Works, 1987, no.70. Also repr: S. John Woods, John Piper : Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, 1932-1954, 1955, pl.163

Piper usually worked on a particular kind of subject over a few years, varying his paintings around a certain type of composition. He painted a series of tomb monuments in churches in 1946-8, choosing most often grand classical sculptures in rural churches. A group of these were shown in his one man exhibition at the Buchholz Gallery in New York in February 1948, including ‘Croome d'Abitot Monument', ‘Ockham Kings Monument', ‘Boxted Monument', ‘Redgrave Monument' and ‘Waldershare Monument' (repr.[David Fraser Jenkins (ed.)], John Piper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, 1983, p.114). The composition of these subjects is typically based on an oblique view, with the shapes reduced to the solid geometrical blocks of their classical architecture, painted with grey-brown tones. Many of the sculptures were also photographed by Piper, although no photographs of Yarnton have been identified among the artist's negatives at the Tate Gallery, and he did not in any case transfer the designs from photographs. Piper was then joint editor of the Shell County Guides with John Betjeman, with whom he frequently toured the English parish churches.

In ‘Oxon: by John Piper' (1938, the Shell Guide), the church monuments are described by Katherine Esdaile, who lists under Yarnton: ‘Splendid monument with standing and seated figure to various Spencers, 1712, by John Nost'. The Spencer Chapel was built by the family who lived at Yarnton Manor. A gouache drawing by Piper of the tomb, seen from the same angle but in greater detail, is in the archive collection of Shell Mex British Petroleum (618, ‘Yarnton - Composition by John Nost', in their unpublished catalogue), and although it was not reproduced in the Guide it was probably drawn in 1937-8 and so is not directly related to this painting.

‘Yarnton Monument' was painted at the artist's studio near Henley, from a sketch drawn in the church, which is about twenty-five miles away. A completed study for the painting was purchased from the artist by the British Council in 1949 (repr. The British Council Collection 1938-1984, 1984, p.111). The subject was commissioned as one of a pair of lithographs by Rex Nan Kivell of the Redfern Gallery, and the print was made at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1948 (probably with the assistance of George Devenish). Its pair was a painting of the Victorian interior of Sutton Waldron, Dorset, a vertical design (the painting is in a private collection). Both lithographs were shown at the Redfern Gallery in Colour Prints by the Society of London Painter-Printers, Nov.-Dec. 1948 (Sutton Waldron [1], repr., Yarnton Monument, Oxon [2]). These were Piper's first lithographs.

The date of the purchase from the Leicester Galleries is given on a label on the reverse as ‘1947', but this is probably a mistake for 1948. From 1946 John Carter (1905-1975), the husband of Mrs Ernestine Carter, was managing director of Charles Scribners, the American publishers, in London, and had previously worked in New York. He had published Sir Thomas Browne's ‘Urne Buriall and the Garden of Cyrus' with illustrations by Paul Nash in 1932, and had assisted Curt Valentin with Piper's exhibition at the Buchholz Gallery, New York, in 1945.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.230-1

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