￼￼￼￼￼￼John Piper, Abstract, 1955, screenprinted rayon, published by David Whitehead Ltd, Lancashire, private collection © The Piper Estate
Recently opened at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester is the new exhibition John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism. Piper is well known for his wide-ranging work – from painting and printmaking to designing stained glass windows and theatre sets – but this exhibition is the first to focus on his textile designs and brings together many of his mid-century fabrics.
Simon Martin, Artistic Director of Pallant House Gallery, tells us more about John Piper’s 1955 ‘Abstract’ textile design.
John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism
John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism is the first major exhibition to focus on the artist’s role as the designer of printed fabrics and tapestries in the post-war period. It brings together many of the fabrics that he designed for the 1950s and ’60s home together with studies and related paintings, collages and prints. It demonstrates Piper’s extraordinary versatility as an artist, and his openness to working with skilled craftsmen, printers and workshops to realise his ideas.
John Piper and abstract art
One of Piper’s first fabrics was ‘Abstract’ (1955), which was printed by David Whitehead Ltd, a company based in Lancashire. What is so interesting is that this strikingly modern design was actually based on a painting that Piper had created in the mid-1930s called ‘Abstract Painting 1935’, when he was working in an exclusively abstract style that predated his much more familiar images of churches and country houses.
The original painting, which we show alongside the textile in the exhibition, was owned by Hans and Elsbeth Juda, who were the editors of The Ambassador – a magazine that served to promote British design and exports abroad. It is easy to see why Piper selected this painting as the basis for a repeat pattern. Its modern composition revealed the international influences on his work, particularly the impact of his trips to Paris in the mid-1930s where he had seen the abstract work of Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder and Jean Hélion. The vertical bands of dark and light forms, with intersecting triangular and circular shapes, made it particularly appropriate for a hanging fabric that would be used for curtains. Piper really understood that pattern design was not just about creating a flat repeat, but something that would flow and have rhythm when hanging in folds.
John Piper and David Whitehead
‘Abstract’ was one of a number of fabrics that he designed for David Whitehead in the 1950s and ’60s, which are each very distinctive from each other and were reinterpretations of historical subjects in a modernist idiom. The fabrics included a design based on a church monument by Grinling Gibbons, another on the gates at Blenheim Palace, whilst others featured foliate heads based on ‘green men’ in medieval carvings, and coastal landscapes in Brittany. He later produced a whole range for Arthur Sanderson and Sons’ centenary in 1960 including one based on a church by the Grand Canal in Venice, and others based on stained glass windows and his paintings of the Welsh mountains.
All of these commercially screenprinted textiles are very ‘painterly’ in character and reflect a move for fine artists to create artworks that could be translated into printed fabrics, which was marked by an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1953 called ‘Painting into Textiles’, sponsored by The Ambassador magazine. Piper’s designs were exhibited alongside other artists such as Terry Frost, Ivon Hitchens, Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi, Graham Sutherland and Paule Vézelay. After the exhibition, Piper had been approached by Tom Mellor who was architect and design consultant to David Whitehead about the possibility of developing a range of fabrics. Of these, ‘Abstract’ is perhaps the closest to work of post-war designers such as Lucienne Day, Marion Mahler and Jacqueline Groag in its flat, graphic qualities.
John Piper: pairing painting and fabric
In planning the exhibition I was determined to locate the original painting that was used for this fabric. After establishing which painting was the basis for the repeat, I managed to track down the owner via a certain amount of detective work, only to discover from them that it had just been consigned to Christie’s for their upcoming Modern British auction! By a remarkable coincidence, when Christie’s kindly put me in touch with the new owner after the sale they turned out to be a supporter of the Gallery whom I knew well and who kindly agreed to lend it. It was a slightly circuitous route, but we managed to get it in the end. The fabric itself is quite rare now – we have borrowed the example in the exhibition from a private collector, but the Victoria and Albert Museum also has a very good example in its collection.
The pairing of the painting and fabric is one of several in the exhibition, which also features a number of Piper’s collage designs for Piper’s first tapestry, the celebrated Chichester Cathedral Tapestry, which was unveiled fifty years ago in 1966.
John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 12 June 2016
Order the accompanying book here
Read our post on the enduring appeal of mid-century pattern
Read more about The Ambassador Magazine’s role in promoting mid-century textiles in this book