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Thompson’s Gallery stages John Piper retrospective in Aldeburgh

PUBLISHED: 13:50 06 September 2018 | UPDATED: 13:50 06 September 2018

Foliate Heads by John Piper, the centrepiece of a new exhibition at Thompson's Gallery in Aldeburgh Photo: Thompson's Gallery

Foliate Heads by John Piper, the centrepiece of a new exhibition at Thompson's Gallery in Aldeburgh Photo: Thompson's Gallery

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John Piper was one of Benjamin Britten’s favourite artists and worked closely with the composer. As Arts editor Andrew Clarke discovers Thompson’s Gallery is bringing some of his distinctive work back to Suffolk

Snape Maltings by John Piper, part of a new exhibition at Thompson's Gallery in Aldeburgh. This image was used as a scarf design to mark the re-opening of the concert hall in 1970.  Photo: Thompson's GallerySnape Maltings by John Piper, part of a new exhibition at Thompson's Gallery in Aldeburgh. This image was used as a scarf design to mark the re-opening of the concert hall in 1970. Photo: Thompson's Gallery

John Piper was a very distinctive artist and has been described as a British visionary. He was a favourite of Suffolk composer Benjamin Britten and designed many of the sets for his operas staged at Covent Garden.

His paintings were also collected by Britten’s partner Peter Pears and formed the heart of Pears impressive art collection at their home The Red House.

Now Piper, or at least his work, is returning to Aldeburgh with a new exhibition of original works, limited edition prints and tapestries.

Lewknor, Oxfordshire by John Piper, part of a new exhibition at Thompson's Gallery in Aldeburgh Photo: Thompson's GalleryLewknor, Oxfordshire by John Piper, part of a new exhibition at Thompson's Gallery in Aldeburgh Photo: Thompson's Gallery

Art curator Graham Simper said: “The centre piece is a wonderful mixed media painting entitled ‘Foliate Heads’, foliate or leafy heads such as this one are, perhaps, one of John Piper’s most distinctive motifs appearing in his works in a variety of media including tapestries and ceramics as well as drawings, paintings and prints.

“This striking work has been in a private collection in Rio de Janeiro and has not been on the market since the 1950s when we believe it was purchased by the collector Assis Chateaubriand, founder of the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), for his private collection. Chateaubriand was appointed Ambassador of Brazil to the United Kingdom, a position he held from 1957 to 1961 which would suggest is the time he acquired the ‘Foliate Heads’.”

Around this colourful and powerful work Graham has built an ecclectic show which demonstrates the scope of Piper’s vision which takes in a range of media and subject matter.

Long Sutton, Lincolnshire. This tapestry by John Piper forms part of a new exhibition at Thompson's Gallery in Aldeburgh Photo: Thompson's GalleryLong Sutton, Lincolnshire. This tapestry by John Piper forms part of a new exhibition at Thompson's Gallery in Aldeburgh Photo: Thompson's Gallery

“We also have a number of significant original paintings such as ‘Northants. Church, Maxey’ and ‘Trellyfant, c.1968’ as well as prints for which Piper is generally best known, among them ‘Anglesey Beach’ and Castlemartin’ and many more.

One of the most delicate and beautiful is a limited edition pen and ink drawing of Snape Maltings produced for the 1970 Aldeburgh Festival to mark the re-opening of the Concert Hall. The image was also used on a commemorative scarf sold during the festival.

Seeing the work brought together, utilising different media and drawn from a lifetime’s experience, makes you realise what a fearless artist he was. There is a lovely confidence about the use of colour. He just splashes it across the picture and it works.

Licheres, Charente by John Piper, part of a new exhibition at Thompson's Gallery in Aldeburgh Photo: Thompson's GalleryLicheres, Charente by John Piper, part of a new exhibition at Thompson's Gallery in Aldeburgh Photo: Thompson's Gallery

His picture of Eastnor Castle, Hereford. shown in silhouette against a fiery sunset is dazzling. The castle itself is framed by trees and low hanging leaves which, in Piper’s hands, echo the warm-glow of the sunset, the bold yellows, reds and orange standing out against the dark, forboding shape of the historic fortress.

Another inspired work in the exhibition is a lithograph of Lewknor church in Oxfordshire, created in 1964. The simply drawn image is then coloured by blocks of blue colourwash which give the image a geometric energy.

Graham said: “It’s a wonderful artistic exercise in smoke and mirrors. It takes a straight forward drawing and turns it into something special.

Lancing College by John Piper, part of an exhibition at Thompson's Gallery in Aldeburgh Photo: Thompson's GalleryLancing College by John Piper, part of an exhibition at Thompson's Gallery in Aldeburgh Photo: Thompson's Gallery

“John Piper is one of the most significant British artists of the 20th Century. He worked across an extraordinary range of disciplines influencing the cultural landscape of modern Britain and this exhibition reveals Piper’s fresh, experimental touch at its best. You can see his work change over the years.

“Piper’s inspiration was taken from a love and knowledge of the British landscape, its buildings, monuments and their heritage.”

During the Second World War Piper was commissioned by the Royal Family to paint a series of 15 portraits of Windsor Castle from 1941-42. As these were the dark days of the war, the pictures reflected the atmosphere of the times and Piper either painted at night, showing searchlights criss-crossing the skies or had dark, brooding skies.

When the finished works were unveiled, King George VI, looked at them, turned and said: “You don’t appear to have had much luck with the weather, Mr Piper.”

John Piper exhibition is at Thompson’s Gallery, High Street, Aldeburgh until September 29.

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