Our main purpose in popping over to Manchester last week was to see the John Piper exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery. Piper is an artist whose work I admire, but I have to admit that this exhibition – The Mountains of Wales – left me a little underwhelmed. Or maybe that should be overwhelmed? The Whitworth has brought together a large selection of paintings and drawings, all from a private collection, depicting mountains and rocks. The trouble is that, taken together, the note sung by these works is a dark monotone: predominantly greys, browns and blacks with occasional splashes of colour. As David Fraser Jenkins says in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, ‘Not one of the drawings looks as if it has been made on a sunny day.’
Piper began to draw and paint the landscape of North Wales during the Second World War. He was sent to Snowdonia in 1943 by the War Artists Advisory Committee, and rented a succession of cottages there between 1945 and 1956; two of them, at Maes Caradog and Pentre, were situated in Nant Ffrancon, the wild and beautiful glaciated valley followed by the A5 up from Betws-y-Coed through Capel Curig and on to Holyhead.
Piper’s commission from the War Artists Advisory Committee was 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. 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. ‘I felt then that I was seeing the mountains for the first time and seeing them as nobody had seen them before’, Piper said.
Don’t get me wrong: these large drawings and paintings made in Snowdonia are powerful works and reveal Piper’s close understanding of the landscape of the place, and the interest in geology that he developed during the time he spent there.
Piper was inspired by the cwms, tuffs, peaks, lakes and cliff faces of the mountains, and he also studied the geology of the mountains. While travelling around Snowdonla he would refer to A.C. Ramsay’s Old Glaciers of Switzerland and North Wales (1860), an outdated text by the 1940s, but one that provided Piper with enough detail to understand the basic geological features of Snowdonia. In many of the paintings and drawings, Piper has taken immense care to capture the rock striations, the exact placement of boulders and the jointing of the rock faces.
The Whitworth Gallery has done a great job, placing Piper’s Welsh mountain paintings and drawings in context, with supporting displays across three rooms. In one room there is a superb display of Welsh rock specimens and geologic guides; many of these are the rocks which Piper has depicted in his expressionistic manner in the neighbouring room.
Another room presents The ‘Sublime: Watercolours of the Welsh Landscape, a complementary exhibition of 18th and 19th century works from the Whitwoth collection by artists such as David Cox, John Varley and JMW Turner – the latter greatly admired by Piper. Finally, Piper’s documentation of rocks and mountains are juxtaposed with contemporary land art. The final room contains two Richard Long stone sculptures: White Onyx, composed from quarried rocks of the mineral arranged in a line for the viewer to walk beside, and Tideless Stones, semi-circles of French paving stones made of dolomitic limestone.
Many of Piper’s paintings and drawings were the result of hours the artist out on the mountains, often in difficult weather. 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 would study the rocks and mountain faces intently.
According to the exhibition catalogue
Like artists before and since, he was drawn to the visual drama of the Welsh mountains, but he was also fascinated by their geology, as his artist’s eye explored ‘the bones and structure.
Piper drove, cycled and climbed miles to reach his chosen locations where, however isolated, wet or windy the environment, he immersed himself in ‘the “lie” of the mountains’. He drew on the spot, using various materials including his fingers, later developing drawings into prints or paintings. His spontaneous, fluid techniques seem at one with the rough textures and colours of the mountains and rocky outcrops.
Piper wrote that:
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.
Some of the paintings here – such as Cader Idris (1943), Welsh Landscape (1946) and Cwm Idwal (1949) – were, as the exhibition guide explains, accurate representations that could have featured in a guide book to the mountains, while many others – such as Jagged Rocks under Tryfan (below) – were more abstract, bringing out the nature of the landscape and the brooding atmosphere of these wild places.
An exhibition panel observes that:
Colour is the language of the artist. This is particularly the case for John Piper who could make a mountain dazzle with hues of pink, blue or gold as in The Rise of the Dovey, 1943. Piper knew that the colour of the landscape could be affected in a thousand ways by such factors as the light, time of day and year and environmental conditions including the weather. Piper wrote about the colour of rocks in his notes on Snowdonia, now in the Tate Archive. He intended to publish this as a book, but it never extended beyond note form. The following is a quote from these notes: ‘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 Rise of the Dovey, mentioned in that panel and seen at the top of this post, was for me one of the most arresting paintings here. The handling of light and dark, with that burst of yellow snlight on the rock face behind the tarn give the picture its dramatic atmosphere. Piper has combined the dark hues of blue, purple and black with radiant golds, yellows and reds to bring to life the steep rock face of Aran Fawddwy. The title refers to Creiglyn Dyfi, the lake in the foreground, which is the source of the Afon Dyfi, the river Dovey.
Best of all for me was Piper’s stunning painting of Llanthony Abbey (in the Black Mountains in south Wales rather than Snowdonia). The ruin, beautifully lit by a shaft of sunlight, is captured under a brooding sky. JMW Turner made several paintings of the Abbey, including this watercolour, done in 1834.
It’s appropriate that you should leave the exhibition via the room containing the works by Richard Long, since it was Long who changed the artist’s perspective from that of observing the landscape to journeying through it in his 1967 work A Line Made by Walking. Since then, Long has made sculptures during his many walks, the art being inseparable from his movement through the landscape. In this room there are two stone sculptures, White Onyx Line (1990) and Tideless Stones (2008), both made from quarried stone, shown alongside text works which distill the action and experience of a solitary walk into words.
The exhibition guide adds these words:
There are no streams, no clouds, no mountains here. What we have are two groups of stones, a line and an arc, and thirty three words fixed to the walls. Richard Long has been somewhere and brought back for us these remnants of his experiences there. But these works of art aren’t poor substitutes for the walks that Long has made. They are meticulously selected and carefully arranged assemblages of stone and word which ask our imaginations to enter into a place like the one Long ventured within. We walk around, stand still, we look and think, and remember how it feels to be in the landscape. In creating works to show in galleries, Long asks us to participate in making the meaning of the work of art.