Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester.
‘I felt then that I was seeing the mountains for the first time and seeing them as nobody had seen them before’, the artist John Piper (1903-92) said of his visits to Snowdonia, which inspired a series of magnificent paintings and drawings. These pieces, most of which are part of a private collection, are on display at the ‘John Piper: The Mountains of Wales’ exhibition now showing at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester, after a first outing at the National Museum, Cardiff, and subsequent visits to Oriel y Parc, St Davids, and Oriel Mostyn, Llandudno.
Indeed, Piper’s work displays such originality and vitality he would seem to have been right. This series must rank as one of the mightiest artistic recordings of the Welsh landscape of the twentieth century.
In 1943, Piper was ‘stationed’ in North Wales by the War Artists Advisory Committee, which sought to preserve art and document areas of importance for national morale and historical record. While Piper’s original commission to draw the interior of Manod Mawr quarry – where artworks from the National Gallery and the Royal Collection were housed to protect them from the Blitz – would be abandoned, he developed a love for Snowdonia’s dramatic scenery that would bring him back to the area a number of times during the following years.
Of course, Piper’s Snowdonia paintings are by no means his only Welsh artworks, and the exhibition includes a number of pieces done in other parts of the country. Piper’s popular stained glass work can be seen at Llandaff Cathedral, St Woolos’ Cathedral in Newport, and the Church of St Mary in Swansea. Piper and wife Myfanwy (born into a Welsh family in London) spent much time in West Wales (particularly after buying a house there in the 1960s), which led to works such as those of Llangloffan Baptist Chapel, Manorbier Castle and Bullslaughter Bay.
The Whitworth Gallery neatly places Piper’s mountain paintings and drawings in historical context, with geologically-themed exhibitions across three rooms. Firstly, we are led through the ‘Sublime: Watercolours of the Welsh Landscape’ exhibition. Eighteenth and nineteenth century works by the likes of JMW Turner, David Cox and John Varley display the voluptuous beauty of the mountains and surrounding landscape. And we finish with the modern day, with two brilliant Richard Long stone sculptures in a bright, naturally-lit and sparse room. But the Piper exhibition is, in more ways than one, the central attraction.
Over thirty Piper pieces hang on the walls of the Whitworth, spanning over a decade of work and showing evidence of his stylistic shift from a naturalistic approach to more abstract offerings.
Most of these paintings and drawings result from the many isolated hours Piper spent on Snowdonia’s steep slopes and in its difficult weather. As David Fraser Jenkins says in the excellent National Museum of Wales catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, ‘Not one of the drawings looks as if it has been made on a sunny day.’
Often Piper would produce sketches in ink while on the hills, which he would then turn into large-scale paintings when back in the studio. Piper’s modus operandi of getting up close to the harshest environment, seeking out the most interesting view, and experiencing the scenes he painted give them their urgent, lifelike quality. Piper would say himself ‘Each rock lying in the grass had a positive personality: for the first time I saw the bones and the structure and the lie of the mountains, living with them and climbing them as I was, lying on them in the sun and getting soaked with rain in their cloud cover and enclosed in their improbable, private rock-world in fog.’
This sense of the elements and geology coming together, under the gaze of the human eye, is evident in images such as ‘Near and Far Rocks, Tryfan’, ‘Jagged Rocks under Tryfan’ and ‘Rocks at Capel Curig’. Piper described how what at first glance might appear to be a grim landscape comes to life for the eye: ‘the rocks can only look grey in a leaden light, and then do not, commonly. Against mountain grass or scree, against peaty patches near tarns, on convex slopes, in dark cwms, the same kind of rock can look utterly different, and changes equally violently in colour according to the light and time of year. The rocks are often mirrors for the sky, sometimes antagonistic to the sky’s colour’.
While many of Piper’s works focus on the remoteness of the location, some of the exhibition’s standout paintings highlight Piper’s genius for painting structures. Such work includes ‘Nant Ffrancon Farm’ (where he had stayed on a previous visit), ‘Capel Curig’, ‘Stone Wall in Snowdonia‘ and ‘The Vale of Clwyd’ (from his 1940 trip to Denbighshire). But even here, the buildings are at the mercy of the winds and the rains. They are abstracted to geometrical forms, the touch of the human hand on the landscape almost undetectable.
Piper’s stunning picture of ‘Llanthony Abbey‘ – near the Black Mountains rather than Snowdonia – is perhaps the exhibition’s crowning glory, with the lonely, lit-up ruin beautifully captured under the black sky. ‘The Rise of the Dovey‘ is another standout piece. The dark hues combining with a burst of yellows and red to give the picture its dramatic atmosphere, in which we see the technical influence of Piper’s hero, JMW Turner. In fact, Turner, not coincidentally, had himself painted this location, Aran Fawddwy, in one of his own works.
Snowdonia’s towering peaks are represented in works such as ‘Cwm Glas with Crib Goch’, ‘The Snowdon Range’, ‘Cwm Idwal’ and ‘Cader Idris’, which all demonstrate a scale quite different to the close-up rock pictures. Piper’s appetite for drawing waterfalls is seen in ‘Pistyll Rhaeadr’.
With such famous names and places, ‘The Mountains of Wales’ exhibition gives us a Wales we think we know. But, through Piper’s magnificent eye, perhaps even now we really are truly seeing parts of our country for the first time. This is a beautiful and important body of work. This is an exhibition to be cherished.
John Piper: The Mountains of Wales continues at the Whitworth Art Gallery until April 7.