Pallant House Gallery is to present a new exhibition exploring the fabric designs of the 20th century English painter John Piper. Titled ‘The Fabric of Modernism’, this major exhibition considers for the first time the role of John Piper as an accomplished designer of modern textiles and tapestries. The exhibition, which marks the 50th anniversary of the installation of Piper’s celebrated Chichester Cathedral tapestry, seeks to show how his designs were intricately connected to his wider work, whilst reflecting on his place within 20th century design. It includes some newly traced and very rare textiles, including several from the Piper Estate which have never before been exhibited.
John Piper (1903 – 1992) was one of the leading Modern British artists of the 20th century whose work was not only part of the artistic avant-garde in Britain, but also appealed to a wide public. Perhaps best known for his paintings of Britain’s romantic heritage including churches, country houses and the wartime ruins of Coventry Cathedral, in the post-war period Piper was also noted for his work as a skilled designer of theatre sets, stained glass windows and textiles.
During the 1930s Piper had worked in a purely abstract style, producing paintings, prints and collages inspired by Picasso and Braque that were in keeping with International Modernism. By the 1950s, Piper’s work was characterised by lyrical and picturesque imagery of architecture and the landscape, but through commissions to design fabrics and tapestries he reintroduced bold abstract imagery into his work, reflecting developments in international abstract art.
Piper’s distinctive use of materials and expressive mark-making was suited to the screen printing techniques involved in producing modern fabrics. By designing fabrics for companies such as Ascher Ltd, David Whitehead Ltd, and Arthur Sanderson and Sons Ltd, Piper contributed to a wider interest in painterly textiles in the 1950s and 60s, together with other artists such as Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi, Kenneth Rowntree and Graham Sutherland. He was able to bring his characteristic imagery to the foreground of a burgeoning modern consumer culture, translating motifs from his paintings into repeat patterns for fabrics to adorn the contemporary interiors of post war homes.
Pivotal to the narrative of the exhibition is the commission for the High Altar of Chichester Cathedral, which was Piper’s first tapestry and forms an important example of modern religious art and church patronage. It bridges the ideas and imagery Piper developed elsewhere in stained glass window designs and commercially printed fabrics, such as the textured collage techniques of his Brittany beachscapes. Many of the studies for this important example of religious art will be shown alongside examples and trial panels of the Foliate Head tapestries woven to Piper’s designs at West Dean Tapestry Studio near Chichester.
Piper’s commissions for the church also included ecclesiastical garments worn by clergy at Chichester Cathedral, Coventry Cathedal and St Paul’s Cathedral, featuring vibrant colours and abstract motifs, informed by his understanding of costume design for opera and his awareness of the work of Matisse at the Chapel at Vence in the early 1950s.
Through over 80 works, many loaned from public and private collections, this exhibition explores recurring key motifs in the artist’s work such as historic architecture, abstract and religious imagery, as well as subjects explored in the final years of his life, such as foliate heads, sunflowers and the church at Long Sutton. Showing textile designs alongside related paintings, collages and prints, as well as some of Piper’s home furniture and ceramics designs, the exhibition seeks to demonstrate how Piper’s designs helped push forward his artistic innovation in other media, whilst deepening our understanding of this versatile artist.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a new publication by Simon Martin, Artistic Director of Pallant House Gallery, with a contribution by Frances Spalding, author of the biography of John and Myfanwy Piper. Drawing on new research it will form the first comprehensive record of Piper’s textiles and tapestries, featuring works in public and private collections.
John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism
12 March – 12 June 2016 Pallant House UK