John Piper C.H. (British, 1903-1992) Byland Abbey 30 x 25 cm. (11 3/4 x 10 in.)
Lot 58
John Piper C.H. (British, 1903-1992) Byland Abbey 30 x 25 cm. (11 3/4 x 10 in.)
Sold for £42,000 (US$ 70,877) inc. premium
Auction Details
Lot Details
John Piper C.H. (British, 1903-1992)
Byland Abbey
signed and dated 'John Piper 1940' (lower right), further signed, inscribed and dated again 'Byland Abbey/by/John Piper/For Basil &/Frances./Nov. 1940' (verso)
oil on canvas laid on board
30 x 25 cm. (11 3/4 x 10 in.)


    A gift by the artist to Basil and Frances Creighton in November 1940.
    Inherited by the current owner from The Estate of Frances Creighton, widow of Basil.

    Byland Abbey now belongs to English Heritage and is located at Coxwold in North Yorkshire. Founded in the twelfth century by a community of monks it was renowned for its sheep rearing and production of wool. The church, which was 100 metres long, was the largest in the country and rivalled the great cathedrals of Europe. Completed circa 1195 the church façade, with its distinctive ruined outline, is the subject of the present work.

    Having become a leading British abstract artist in the mid 1930s, John Piper came to feel that it was an insufficient outlet for his artistic interests and sought to return to a more representational form of art. John Betjeman records that in 1938 he approached the artist to produce a Shell Guide to Oxfordshire. The task led Piper back to a childhood interest in architecture and in particular English churches. In the course of production of the Guide for which he took many photographs, he also produced a number of watercolours which Betjeman commended for their accuracy, affection, humour and feeling for texture and surrounding landscape.

    Following this project John Betjeman subsequently wrote : "From 1938 until the war he [Piper] made regular tours to various parts of England and Wales, looking for stained glass, churches with box pews in a Cotman state of picturesque decay, ruins, early industrial scenery, Welsh lakes and waterfalls, follies, country houses, [and] Yorkshire caves. He came back with hundreds of water-colours and material for later oils.

    The transition from water-colour to oil is marked.... The landscapes in oil are essays in the careful use of colour which, though it may not be "like", is like what the place painted is like to a poet. He believes that paint should not be thrown on, or scratched in, anyhow: but just as a church relates itself to a tree in a picture or a folly to a hill it stands on, one piece of paint should agree or disagree, combine or contrast with another and with all the other pieces." (John Betjeman, John Piper, Penguin Books, 1948 edition, p.12-13).

    This period of travel throughout England and Wales between 1938 and the onset of the Second World War in September 1939 provided the material for Piper's first solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in March 1940 and proved a big success. Milton Abbas (Dorset), was exhibited and was sold at that exhibition. Subsequently it was sold in these rooms on 8 November 2007 for £74,400 (lot 58).

    Piper's change of style and the success of the Leicester Galleries exhibition in turn led to Piper being commissioned as a war artist by Kenneth Clark, who, at the time, was the Director of the National Gallery.

    From August 1940 with the onset of the Blitz, Piper was phenomenally busy recording the destruction of the city churches at Bath, St Mary le Port Bristol, and subsequently Coventry Cathedral in November 1940. The series of oil paintings that he produced at this time, using his theory of colour very successfully conveyed the drama of this particular period in British history.

    Byland Abbey, painted in November 1940, was a gift to John Piper's friends Basil and Frances Creighton as the inscription on the verso indicates. Painted on a slightly smaller scale than Milton Abbas (Dorset), it incorporates the technique that Piper favoured at this time of laying a thinly woven canvas onto a piece of board and then cutting away sections of it, in this case the façade, column and blue area of sky, which he has scored into for added surface texture.
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  1. Matthew Bradbury
    Specialist - Modern British and Irish Art
    101 New Bond Street
    London, United Kingdom W1S 1SR
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