Church Crawling: John Piper, Photography and Wales

A paper presented at the MONC Word and Image conference at National Library of Wales - September 2017

This paper focuses on the photographs taken in Wales by the artist John Piper (1903-1992). The title ‘Church Crawling’ should more accurately read ‘Chapel Crawling’, as the works discussed here largely reflect Piper’s fascination with this form of religious architecture. Attention is paid to the Shell Guide publication South-West Wales (first published in 1963; republished in 1976) and the interplay between its text and photographs.

There has been extensive scholarship regarding the life and art of John Piper. In particular, the writings of David Fraser Jenkins have provided invaluable contributions to this paper. A significant resource has been the John Piper Archive at the Tate to which Piper gifted approximately five thousand photographs, all of which are available online.

From the age of ten years John Piper collected guidebooks and he became increasingly interested in history and old buildings in the countryside. In 1919, at the age of sixteen, he joined the Surrey Archaeology Society. The young Piper started writing accounts of his own tours visiting old buildings such as churches, and incorporated these into personal tour booklets supplemented with his own drawings and photographs of architectural detail [1].

There was an expectation that Piper would join the family law firm but he withdrew from legal studies at the age of 23 to further his already active life in the arts [2]. The following year he entered the Royal College of Art where artists such as Paul Nash, Eric Ravilious and Ceri Richards were teaching. Frustrated that the Royal College appeared to focus more on producing art teachers than artists he abandoned his place in 1929 [3].

During the 1930s Piper’s association with Paul Nash would become established and important. The decade would also see him start his collaboration on the Shell Guides with poet and critic John Betjeman, as well as making contributions to the Architectural Review. Writing in 1990, David Fraser Jenkins suggested “Piper’s taste for the vernacular in British architecture, like that of John Betjeman, was anti-snobbish, and both men tried in articles for the Architectural Review in the 1930s to broaden the canon” [4]. Indeed, Piper took the view that the arts was not a relentless progression moving towards an ideal of purity. His spirit is manifest in his writing of 1937.

“The tradition once more has to stretch – must be forced if necessary even to bursting point – to include anything and everything that has a pointed reference to life, however little it appears to agree, or to be able to shake down comfortably with what has gone before it, or what we feel has got to come after, in a point of time. People think it dishonest to be chameleon-like in one’s artistic allegiances. On the other hand, I think it dishonest to be anything else” [5].

Piper’s keen interests in architecture and landscape, along with his distinctive craftsmanship, resulted in Kenneth Clark enabling a commission for him to work on the Recording Britain initiative in 1939. The scheme set out to establish an art collection for the Government with artists tasked to find and take note of landscapes, towns, churches and country houses. In 1944 he was appointed an Official War Artist attached to the Ministry of War Transport [6].

Following the war Piper’s work included the design of stage sets for productions including those at the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and Aldeburgh. He received public commissions to design numerous stained-glass windows; the most prestigious being the Baptistery Window, Coventry Cathedral (1961-1964). He also worked in textiles and notably designed the altar tapestry at Chichester Cathedral (1964-1966). By this point, Piper’s reputation as a leading British artist was firmly established - he continued a prolific output of works in various media until his death in 1992.

Throughout his career Piper had a strong connection to Wales. His first painting trip to Wales took place in 1936 at a time when he was also making collages, and was emerging from a relatively short but intense period of working in pure abstraction. In 1943 he visited Snowdonia to paint landscapes including Manod Quarry and a year later painted shipping in Cardiff as part of his War work [7]. Also in 1944 Piper and his wife, Myfanwy, started to rent cottages in Snowdonia and were regular visitors throughout the 1950s. In 1962 they acquired the cottage Garn Fawr near Strumble Head, Pembrokeshire. Fraser Jenkins suggested that “Piper has probably made more drawings and paintings of the area around Garn Fawr than any other place – oddly, he rarely draws his own home near Henley” [8].

Throughout his extensive career Piper took photographs as a contribution to the development of his artworks, most often processing and printing them himself.

At the heart of any Shell Guide lies a paradox. The sponsor wants to encourage the growth of the tourist industry to boost the use of its products. It attempts to do this by suggesting attractive tours, often to destinations valued for their history and beauty. The imposition of tourism, and the associated facilities tourists require, has the potential to devalue that which the tourist sought. There are also conflicts of interest. Not least for those commissioned to produce material for a Guide; by celebrating what they valued they were potentially contributing to its demise. John Betjeman noted that “All this tourist industry brought prosperity and security to Cornwall until the appearance of the Duchy was seriously altered by electricity and the motor-car” [9].

John Betjeman shared Piper’s passion for architecture (each had an encyclopaedic knowledge of churches) - Betjeman described himself and Piper as a pair of ‘Church Crawlers’. The Shell Guides series had started in 1934 with Betjeman’s Cornwall with many in the series being updated and republished over a number of decades. The Guides provided a county-by-county illustrated gazetteer focussing on the notable architecture of towns and villages across Britain

The scheme of the Shell Guides was to select interesting and enjoyable buildings and landscapes, publish attractive photographs, including ordinary subjects as well as those that were more grand, and to write descriptive texts in plain English rather than ‘architectural English’. Comparisons were made with Nikolaus Pevsner’s county guides. The Shell Guides promoted enjoyment, whilst Pevsner’s guides promoted scholarship and study. The Shell Guides covered much of Britain with Piper writing several of them and editing all but the earliest [10]. There can be little doubt that the work on the Shell Guides provided Piper with the significant opportunity to extensively travel and explore the architecture and landscapes of Britain. When the production of the Guides came to an end in 1984, for Piper it felt like losing a limb [11].

The South West Wales Shell Guide was originally published in 1963 in the period just after Piper’s acquisition of the cottage at Garn Fawr. Indeed the cottage can be seen in a photograph included in the Guide (p.130). The Guide contains almost two hundred photographs, all in black and white, showing religious buildings, landscapes, castles, standing stones and working environments. Over fifty of the photographs are by John Piper with other contributions from his sons Edward and Sebastian. Roger Worsley and Peter Burton contributed other photographs.

Vyvyan Rees’s high-spirited yet sensitive prose for the Guide primarily focuses on architecture and landscape providing occasional cultural references including Dylan Thomas and the filming of Under Milk Wood at Fishguard. As might be expected in a travel guide sponsored by a car fuel company, there are references to roads – these are not always positive. For Rees the A40 is “scenically dull, and almost unbearably traffic-laden at peak holiday times…” [12]. However, there is a balance with the beauty of some journeys being considered “unforgettable” [13].

Attention is given to the visual aesthetics of the region, particularly the imposition of artificial elements. Rees writes

“The thirst for water in the Swansea area has recently led to the creation of Llyn Brianne reservoir… An artificial element is introduced, naturally alien, disturbing contours and folds; the black coil of a scenic route is easier on the suspension than on the eye” [14].

Political undercurrents can be felt running through the text - at times pinned firmly to their cultural referents such as in matter of forests. Whilst this could apply across Wales, reference to the work of David Gwenallt Jones gives a local specificity. Rees again writes

“Forestry too absorbs more and more of the empty spaces… They introduce yet another artificial element. The curlews and lapwings retreat further into the desert, and the hill farmer to a tidy villa on the outskirts of his market town. His epitaph, and that of the way of life that goes with him, is written in the poem Rhydcymerau by David Gwenallt Jones” [15].

There is a palpable contempt for the imposition of tourism on the landscape. Again, perhaps surprisingly explicit considering the nature of the sponsor’s business.

“Pendine: Wedged tightly at sea level between the Proof and Experimental Establishment of the Ministry of Defence at Llanmiloe to the east and massive cliffs to the west is a truly remarkable array of caravans, chalets, bungalows, amusement buildings and other amenities. It defies description” [16].

“Freshwater East: Utterly abandoned to caravans, chalets and facilities” [17].

Throughout the Guide the words and photographs appear to travel separately; only occasionally do they combine to make precise/shared observations of the places they represent. As is often the case, it is the imaginative space between word and image that is most interesting.

John Piper was always interested in the palimpsest of landscape, and the ways buildings could evolve and then degenerate – for him every stage was equally interesting – there was no perfect state. The same applied to landscape. In his photograph at Pembrey there is the hill with its quarry – the stone cottages probably housed some of the quarrymen; they are likely to have worshipped in the chapel and be buried in its graveyard. The iron railings of the chapel are a referent to the area’s metal industries – the telegraph wires point to a world increasingly shrinking through its communication systems.

Industry features in Piper’s street scene in Llanelli. It has to be assumed that Vyvyan Rees was using Piper’s photograph to help him construct his prose when he wrote

“Llanelli streets have a special quality; mostly early 19th century, the rows of houses are planned with a conviction in layout and eye for detail (Classical, Gothic, Tudor). They recall the early paintings of Giorgio de Chirico” [18].

Certainly Piper’s preferred use of directional and contrasting light makes the scene look like a de Chirico painting – a visit to the location on a rainy winter’s day would be less likely to do so.

The Guide also featured photographs of churches and chapels by Piper including Bethabara Chapel at Pontyglazier.

Welsh chapels would be a constant subject for Piper, with his attentiveness towards them developing throughout his frequent visits to Wales. Of chapels Piper noted

“I do regard myself as a bit of a pioneer in pointing out these chapels are not the hideous things they used to be thought… They are uneducated, passionate, argumentative and contradictory, architecturally illiterate – which are their virtues” [19].

It is the case that chapels in the industrial Valleys of south Wales were often compared to colliery winding houses which, more often than not, were built by the same builders and of the same stone taken from the same quarries [20]. Piper did take photographs in the Valleys such as Bethesda Chapel in Merthyr Tydfil and also photographed architecture in the broader landscapes of Nantyglo and Llanhillieth. However, his primary locations for chapels in Wales were in the nation’s north, mid and west. Often the name of the chapel is clearly visible in the photograph providing an interesting juxtaposition between the biblical and the exquisitely banal.

Evidence of Piper’s creative engagement with chapels in Wales can be found in the 1964 exhibition and accompanying catalogue John Piper in Wales. The exhibition of mainly paintings and drawings was organised by the Welsh Arts Council, curated by its Assistant Director Tom Cross, and toured across Wales. The exhibition included two sets of collages that incorporated drawings of Welsh Nonconformist Chapels made in 1937. The image used at the start of Tom Cross’s catalogue essay is a photograph of the façade of Llanon Chapel taken by Piper in 1937.

Piper’s comment of being “a bit of a pioneer” regarding chapels (cited above) featured in a catalogue publication to accompany the later 1974 exhibition John Piper: Photographs of Wales, again organised by the Welsh Arts Council. A rare photography-only exhibition for Piper, it featured ninety-eight of his photographs, fifty of which related to chapels. The catalogue foreword by Peter Jones noted that most of the photographs in the exhibition “have been seen in print (many of them in three of the Faber & Faber’s Shell Guide series – ‘North Wales’, ‘Mid-Western Wales’, and ‘South West Wales’)” [21]. This exhibition came at a period in which Jones, through the Welsh Arts Council, was doing much to promote and develop creative photography in Wales.

It has been recognised that a renaissance in British creative photography started to gain traction during the 1960s and 1970s. A key highlight was when British photographer Bill Brandt had a major retrospective exhibition at MoMA New York in 1969, which went on to tour across America and Britain, including the Hayward Gallery in London and Newport’s Museum and Art Gallery.

Bill Brandt and John Piper were contemporaries; Brandt photographed Piper in June 1948 for Lilliput Magazine for a feature on living artists [23]. They had both had been acquainted before this. In his biography of Bill Brandt, Paul Delany suggested that Brandt’s developing wartime patriotism drew him to photograph the English landscape at a time when Piper was a key figure in English visual culture and, in terms of landscape, Piper had become one of Brandt’s tutors [24]. It has been suggested elsewhere that the two artists were “mutually admiring” [25]. Piper’s use of strong directional lighting and high contrast printing (as seen in his photographs of Llanelli Streets) is not dissimilar Brandt’s own distinctive photography.

Of perhaps greater influence would be the artist Paul Nash who taught Piper photographic techniques including the use of a red filter to dramatically darken skies [26]. Nash had taken up photography in 1930 and embraced it as an art form at a time when traditional artists of his generation were regarding it as an inferior practice [27]. Nash was knowledgeable of developments in European art and photography and became particularly interested in the German photography that emerged from the Neue Sachlichtkeit movement in the 1920s. This New Objective Photography included the work of photographers such as Albert Renger-Patsch and became increasingly visible to new audiences in London between 1929-1932. In 1932 Paul Nash reviewed Karl Blossfeldt’s book Art Forms in Nature and discussed the relationship between photography and modern art with reference to an exhibition of Blossfeldt’s photographs at Zwemmer Gallery in London. Nash pointed out that in these photographs “we have an intensely interesting example of the peculiar power of the camera to discover formal beauty which ordinarily is hidden from the human eye” [28]. It was later suggested by the German publisher Kraszna-Kraus that Nash’s own work was “nothing other than New Objectivity in style and content” [29].

It is highly likely that Piper’s photography, through their numerous creative exchanges, would have been influenced by Nash’s often direct, realist approach to taking photographs. It should also be noted that at times Piper’s photographs also demonstrate a surrealist quality as often found, in different ways, in the work of both Nash and Brandt. However, Piper’s later photographs of chapel facades are consistently framed and composed with a direct approach that appears to become more uniform following his acquisition of a Hasselblad square format camera around 1963. As outlined earlier, this is the start of a period that coincides with the growing awareness of creative photography in Britain which itself witnessed an increased interest in contemporary photography from both America and Europe.

For example, in 1974 the Tate purchased Pitheads, nine black and white photographs (these include several locations in Wales), from the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. The strong connections between their own output and the New Objective Photography of the 1920s has often been made.

John Piper, like the Bechers, was essentially collecting buildings through his camera. Whereas the precision applied to the making of the Becher photographs enabled the photographic print to become an end in itself, Piper’s photographs were most often a visual aid for reference; some were part of a process to be completed through further creative transfiguration such as would be seen in his lithographs of chapels. The importance of the combination of text and image in these works is manifest.

To conclude, it is perhaps not too much of a leap of the imagination to see Piper’s photographs of chapels in Wales, particularly in his later work, becoming an end in themselves. The representations became more refined and arguably suggestive of a strong connection to the modernist photography that emerged out of Germany earlier in the century.

There remains further work to be done to enable a better understanding of John Piper’s photographic work and its contribution to the visual culture of Wales.

© Paul Cabuts 2017

[1] Fraser Jenkins, D. & Fowler-Wright, H. (2015). The Art of John Piper. London: Unicorn/Portland Gallery. pp.28-31
[2] ibid. p.42
[3] ibid. p.58
[4] Fraser Jenkins, D. (1990). John Piper in Wales. Newtown/Welshpool: Oriel 31. p.11
[5] Fraser Jenkins, D. & Fowler-Wright, H. (2015). p.125
[6] Fraser Jenkins, D. (1990). p.7
[7] ibid. p.7
[8] ibid. p.15
[9] Betjeman, J. (1964). Cornwall: A Shell Guide. London: Faber and Faber. p.9
[10] Fraser Jenkins, D. (1990). p.16
[11] An Empty Stage. 2009. [Documentary Film] Mapleston, C & Horner, L. Rutland. Goldmark Films
[12] Rees, V. (1976). South West Wales: A Shell Guide. London: Faber and Faber. p.19
[13] ibid. p.31
[14] ibid. p.16
[15] ibid. p.16
[16] ibid. p.62
[17] ibid. p.112
[18] ibid. p.20
[19] de Mare, E. (1974). John Piper: Photographs of Wales. Cardiff: Welsh Arts Council.
[20] Rees, R. (2008). The Black Mystery: Coalmining in South-West Wales. Talybont: yLolfa p.243
[21] de Mare, E. (1974).
[22] Hurn, D. (1979). David Hurn Photographs 1956 – 1976. London: Arts Council of Great Britain. end cover
[23] Fraser Jenkins, D. & Fowler-Wright, H. (2015). p.210
[24] Delany, P. (2004). Bill Brandt: A Life. London: Jonathan Cape. p.197
[25] Fraser Jenkins, D. & Fowler-Wright, H. (2015). p.226
[26] An Empty Stage. 2009. [Documentary Film] Mapleston, C & Horner, L. Rutland. Goldmark Films
[27] Grant, S. (2016). Informal Beauty: The Photographs of Paul Nash. London: Tate. p.11
[28] Mellor, D. (1978). Germany: The New Photography 1927-33. London: Arts Council of Great Britain. p.126
[29] Nash, P. (1932) Photography and Modern Art. in Germany: The New Photography 1927-33. London: Arts Council of Great Britain. p.23

related publications:
Spalding, F. (2009). John Piper Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fraser Jenkins, D. (1987). John Piper: A Painter’s Camera. London: Tate.