There are many reasons to feel a surge of joy at the sight of the Liverpool skyline. There’s the architecture for instance, the way the buildings rise, fall and crescendo like a riverside musical score. And there’s the natural topography, with the apron of the Mersey tucked into a sandstone ridge that gives the edifices something to cling to. But peeking between the pinnacles and towers, there’s also an artwork of considerable beauty, a piece that many people see without quite realising it’s there.
The work is the great lantern window that tops the city’s Catholic cathedral, a blazing crown in stained glass created by the artist John Piper in collaboration with master craftsman Patrick Reyntiens. But although the window is well known for its enveloping chromatic intensity, during daylight its glories shine inwards. From the outside it’s merely a turret of black. As far as skyline observers are concerned, this magnificent artwork is more or less hidden in plain sight.
However, Tate Liverpool is about to illuminate the world of John Piper with a new exhibition dedicated to what it calls “one of the most significant British artists of the 20th century”. Opening on November 17, the show will perhaps serve to throw a little extra light on the cathedral’s window too. After all, in the words of Darren Pih, Tate Liverpool’s exhibitions and displays curator, Piper had “a profound impact on British art and culture”, so it seems only right that he should be celebrated in a city where his work forms part of the urban fabric.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the modernist cathedral’s consecration, and by the time Piper was commissioned to work on it, he was an established artist well into his seventh decade. However, the Tate Liverpool show winds the clock back to focus on the 1930s, a period of transition for Piper, when distant breezes from the medieval world were swirling together with winds of change blowing in from Europe.
As Pih explains: “John Piper is interesting because he was an antiquarian and a medievalist, but at the same time he was looking to Picasso. He wanted to regenerate British art by looking to the continent.
“He was born in 1903, and from an early age he was interested in landscape and heritage. He used to travel around Britain sketching churches, accumulating knowledge about history, stained glass and stone carving.”
While this may sound like the early career of an arch traditionalist, rather than someone ready to embrace the century’s great innovations, by the early 1930s Piper’s writing on art, theatre and music was bringing him into contact with the most forward-thinking artists of the day.
“He was invited to join the Seven and Five Society,” says Pih. “This was the most progressive avant garde movement in Britain at the time, led by Ben Nicholson. Piper went to Paris, he met Alexander Calder and Jean Hélion, he visited the studios of Mondrian and Picasso, then he came back and became an abstract artist.
“Our Liverpool show focuses on this period in the 30s, when he retained his love of British place and landscape, but you can see he was also looking to Braque, Picasso and cubism. There’s a synthesis of Englishness and the continental avant garde.”
Although Piper’s identity as an abstract painter may have seemed settled by this point, the continent’s political turbulence led to continued shifts in his career.
“With the Second World War looming, he began to move away from abstraction,” explains Pih. “He began to paint churches and abbeys, almost as an attempt to preserve them. He became a war artist and subsequently created some of his most sombre and powerful work, though still retaining elements of the modern style he developed in the mid-1930s.
“In fact, he wasn’t just a painter. He was a travel writer, he worked in stained glass, he was commissioned to produce fabrics, and he produced a mural for the Festival of Britain. During the post-war period, he became an emblematic British artist.”
Post-war Britain, with its spirit of optimism and reconstruction, was fertile ground for artists with wide-ranging interests like Piper. Across architecture, publishing, broadcasting and fashion, they were being engaged to help build a better future, one in which creative visionaries would play a crucial role.
Piper had already worked as co-editor of the Shell Guides (alongside John Betjemen) in the 1930s, a book series that Pih describes as “surreal guides to Britain that urged a new breed of motorist to venture forth and explore the countryside”. During the war, he was commissioned by Ealing Studios to design a number of their film posters, and following the conflict, he undertook his major stained glass commissions, first at Coventry cathedral and subsequently in Liverpool.
“He respected the craft of stained glass,” says Pih, “but he also saw a necessity for it to be made relevant to the modern age. While he wanted to preserve, he also wanted to regenerate British art and painting, as well as fabric design, print and book design. He leaves a mark across many areas of applied arts, and I think he understood the role of the artist as having a social purpose.”
With so many strands to his practice, how will Tate Liverpool be representing the breadth of Piper’s work?
“The show contains paintings, reliefs, photographs, collages – these very beautiful coastal collages which are a kind of European take on the English nautical aesthetic.
“We also have actual stone carving. It’s something he researched in 1936, travelling round in his Lancia with a paraffin lamp and a Box Brownie camera, so we have actual carvings from churches across Britain.
“There’ll also be works by artists who influenced Piper, such as Picasso, Calder and Hélion. It shows how his ancient archaeological interest was combined with the European avant garde of the 1930s. And we have stained glass too. So, we’re really trying to encompass this polymathic interest he had.”
And when you’ve finished your tour of the Tate, you can always head up the hill to Hope Street to take in the richly colourful splendour of one of Piper’s greatest works. As Pih says: “I think having the John Piper stained glass in the Metropolitan Cathedral is like having a work permanently sited here. It’s often forgotten about, but it’s a work you can go and see in the flesh.”
By Damon Fairclough, Liverpool Correspondent
John Piper is at Tate Liverpool from November 17, 2017, until March 18, 2018. For more information, visit the website.