This intimately informed account of John and Myfanwy Piper's domestic and artistic partnership brims over with insights and revelations. Who knew that in his Chiltern farmhouse, Fawley Bottom - John Betjeman's "Fawley Bum" - against all artistic rules, Piper loved to paint and scrape at night by lamplight, lacking electricity until 1958? Or that the late Queen Mother had in Clarence House a veritable chapel of Piperdom: a room hung entirely with 26 of his infamous, storm-stricken studies of Windsor Castle, commissioned when it was learnt that the Luftwaffe's flight path to Coventry cut directly over Windsor?
The great and the good abound in the Pipers' life saga: Laurence Olivier, Princess Margaret, Sir John Mortimer, Sir Kenneth Clark, Richard Ingrams, Benjamin Britten, Sir Peter Pears and Sir John Betjeman. The cast is so wide-ranging that a reader is in danger of missing the book's two central messages.
The first is that the English cultural establishment was essentially benign, sound in judgment and potent in operation where art was concerned. And second, that abstract art was tried, judged and found wanting here in the middle decades of the century. The villain was Ben Nicholson, who attempted to force his Seven and Five Society to paint only abstracts. Piper experimented, got bored and then rejected the diktat claiming that "Pure abstraction is undernourished ... It should at least be allowed to feed on a bare beach with tins and broken bottles".
The excellence of this double biography is that virtually every controversial artistic judgment can be tested out by one of 84 radiant colour plates or 98 monochrome illustrations. Added to this we have Spalding's wise irreverence. This is an account of an erratic but hugely influential genius who projected an English way forward in art by looking backwards for inspiration to a varied and dramatic architectural, and even spiritual, past.
Spalding captures the relaxed mood and hospitality generated at Fawley Bottom by Myfanwy's cooking and John's insights. The best passages are Spalding's earthy, practical detail. She lists Myfanwy's menus - white burgundy with oysters, quince-flavoured apple pie, fish risotto, cassoulet, home-baked bread - and analyses brilliantly John's actual craftsmanship in paint. When a visitor expressed surprise at seeing him apply watery Indian ink with his thumb to create foliage on bare branches, John replied confidently, "Ah, you should see the effects I get with butter!"
The brooding romanticism of his country house and church paintings was layer-crafted: gesso on canvas, watercolour over wax crayon areas, blackness scratched with a brush handle to reveal underneath bursts of white, gold, electric blue and red, writhing knots to suggest weathering and decay. The writing of Piper and Betjeman's Shell Guides is a verbal equivalent, capturing the essence and presence of places rather than mere Pevsnerian lists of facts. Even Piper's stage sets for Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw used layers of grey gauze to create ghosts. But the libretto was Myfanwy's sensitive distillation of Henry James' novella: one of three libretti she wrote for Britten in happy accord.
Spalding's engrossing and scholarly study presents an artist who relished and skilfully crafted the complex textures of England, where he lived, and Wales, where he had two cottage retreats. As John Ruskin, John's hero, wrote: "you will never love art well, till you love what she mirrors better". Seven honorary doctorates and countless memberships of influential committees are proof that John Piper loved well and was loved and valued in return. At a point when the current artistic establishment continues to foster a redtop headline art of blow-up animals, dodgy videos and diamond-encrusted skulls, this timely book engenders optimism.
John Piper, Myfanwy Piper - Lives in Art
By Frances Spalding. Oxford University Press. 624pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780199567614. Published 17 September 2009