In the winter of 1937, Alexander Calder performs for his hosts, John and Myfanwy Piper, his now world-famous mechanical Circus.
He had likely first met John in 1934, when Piper went to Paris with his first wife to visit the studios of its resident abstractionists; then John and Myfanwy’s AXIS, the first British journal dedicated (with diminishing strictness) to abstract art, published the earliest reviews of his work in the country. After a holiday with Calder and his wife Louisa in Varengeville in the summer of 1937, the Pipers invited their new friend to visit their home and studio.
He was not the only artist guest that summer: Naum Gabo and Moholy-Nagy, both decidedly out of place in the English countryside, came too, and the rather brusquer Fernand Léger, who, Frances Spalding reveals in her biography of the Pipers, ‘complained at the lack of cows’ as he painted the surrounding south Bucks scenery. By November, Calder was making preparations for a London show the following month. In the backyard of Fawley Bottom, the Pipers’ rundown country residence, he assembled and painted one of his ‘stabile’ sculptures, where it was to return permanently after the exhibition.
America’s pioneer engineer-sculptor, in the front room of a house called ‘Fawley Bottom’, setting up miniature trapezes and wire clowns; if you can hold that image in your head, then you can get to the heart of John Piper’s strange and still much-misunderstood bestriding of the worlds of continental avant-gardism and eccentric English reserve. He was at once an art radical and a traditionalist; modernist and man of whimsy. By the same token, here, in this intimate art historical vignette, you find the contradictions innate to Piper’s Brighton Aquatints: a series quite unlike any other Piper produced in his lifetime.
As a suite – as a publication – it is entirely out of sorts: twelve bound etchings produced in the 1930s, when the etching market was by common consensus dead on its feet; and a guidebook of the kind last produced with any great verve in the mid-19th century, one quite unlike the Shell County Guides series Piper’s friend, John Betjeman, had dreamt up in the early 1930s, and to which Piper had supplied an equally individual account of the hidden treasures of Oxfordshire.
Much of what made Brighton the tourist draw it had become – the grand hotels, sweeping piers, and outlandish Regency projects – were built at the height of the tour-guide trade, when Murray’s, Black’s, and continental rivals Baedeker were household names (providing the households were wealthy, upper-middle class). The town, with its quirky architectural melange and rough-and-tumble reputation, had evidently charmed Piper; in ‘The Nautical Style’, published in Architectural Review, Piper set out his paean to this ‘proper background for popular English seaside life’: ‘The great yellow and white façade is ranged along the Parade, to face the incoming breakers. The piers, the fishing boats pulled up on the shingle, the bandstands and shelters…bow windows and porticoes, the wide pediments and barge boarded bays…curves and sweeps…all these keep up the seaside spirit. They make thousands of people remember Brighton, and long to return to it…’
Lured away from the abstract collages he was then making on beachfronts, the aquatints marked an important milestone in a very slow, and very steady, disentanglement from abstraction. He began tentatively with oils of Brighton and Hove, and from there – at John Betjeman’s instigation – moved to the proposition of an etching series.
The friendship with Betjeman (then a journalist by career, and a poet in private) was one of several important associations Piper made in the 1930s with writers and contributors on the roster for Architectural Review, the other important acquaintance of the time being James ‘Jim’ Richards (husband of painter Peggy Angus). Richards, who in the same year had penned the accompanying text to Eric Ravilious’ High Street, was critical in lending his expertise to the series. Together, in 1938, he and Piper had driven around the country cataloguing the more obscure, unsung aspects of English architectural vernacular: neglected chapels, brick walls, and pub interiors, cameras and notebooks in hand.
A similar approach was made in Brighton, where the pair meandered through the town noting both exemplary and idiosyncratic passages of civil planning. Some of the less obvious views of the suite – the ‘mixed styles’ of Regency, Victorian and ‘Modern’ lodging houses off Brunswick Terrace, or the vista from the station yard, with a great field of terraced houses below – came directly at Richards’ suggestion. As with High Street, there is a like levity and care of observation shared between the two series, though in medium, and therefore touch, they are quite different. In the Brighton prints the quality of the line is not unlike Bawden’s early etchings: feather-light and spare, well contrasted with the salty texture of the aquatint (Bawden had in fact already etched a view of the palace pier, and followed up Piper’s suite with his own linocut revisitations of Brighton in the mid to late-1950s).
In making his synopsis of the town, Piper had few preliminary examples to work from. Turner had of course visited extensively, famously surveying the seafront at length in an extended stay in 1824, and made wide, panoramic, oil and watercolour painted views from sea of the Chain Pier (collapsed in a storm in 1896), the waterfront bathed in a heady, golden glow. One such seascape was translated by engraving in the collected Picturesque Views, but here the town is virtually illegible, recorded only at a hazy distance (intriguingly, the typography used in the Brighton Aquatints, common to bound books of engravings from this period, is virtually identical to that in the Turner suite, which he started to compile around the same time as his Brighton sojourn).
This was the first time Piper had used aquatint, and its success is no doubt indebted to the aid of technicians at the Royal College of Art, whom he sought out of hours in the latter months of 1938. Sketches for the prints were made during the winter of that year; so while the hand colouring of a select 55 sets (of which these illustrated are one) took place nearly eight months later, the overwhelming mood of the suite is of typically British drizzle and bluster. Far from ‘London-by-the-sea’, Piper’s winter Brighton is empty of tourists. In the wonderful grain of the aquatint they have almost the feel of hand-coloured daguerreotypes, or cabinet-card photographs; the black border of First Avenue Hotel like that produced when contact printing camera film, or the oval crop of Brunswick Terrace and Regency Square like late Victorian photographic mounts.
Piper and Betjeman shared a kind of architectural knowledge more akin to private collectors than academics; a sense of place and setting that was equal parts personal, idiomatic, and carefully curated, rather than drily objective and analytic. The whole publication has an air of pastiche, or of pretence to an age that it did not have. Piper supplied descriptive, conversational paragraphs for each plate of the kind he had penned for Architectural Review articles, ‘expressed rather in the manner of a postcard to an intelligent godchild’ (Piper scholar David Fraser Jenkins, aptly construing the manufactured element of faux-seriousness in the suite.) But the real triumph was in Betjeman’s convincing Lord Alfred Douglas – washed-up ex-lover of Oscar Wilde, and Brighton resident – to provide the publication foreword. Lord Douglas’ contribution was quite unexpected: a strange, highly intimate account of his father’s sombre disregard for his children, mediated through recollections of trips to the Pier and Aquarium (‘[which] invariably involved being handed sums of money grossly in excess of what would have been sufficient for the purpose’), and littered with stupendously opinionated, Wildean turns of phrase (a favourite: ‘in the summer months it is invaded by a huge army of “the unwashed of Ipswich” (that is to say, metaphorically speaking, for of course, they have no actual connection with Ipswich) and “the front” becomes almost impassable and quite intolerable.’).
After the scandal of Wilde’s public outing, Douglas had retired to Brighton where he lived alone in a loveless marriage. The hometown he describes is at times a rather depressing place, where ‘painful cases’ and ‘grave charges’ of murder and other crimes are ‘not infrequently associated with it in the reports in the papers’ (the famous Brighton ‘Trunk Murders’ of 1934 saw ‘The Queen of Watering Places’, as the town was nicknamed by the poet Horace Smith, blackly renamed ‘The Queen of Slaughtering Places’). But in its final paragraph, in a reflection that captures some of the delicate melancholia of the prints, he describes (with gallows humour) the nostalgia of its Victorian delights:
‘I had almost forgotten all this till I saw Mr Piper’s aquatints and discovered that the Brighton of my youth is still in existence, and that nearly all the old landmarks remain exactly as they were. If only I were fourteen instead of nearly seventy, no doubt I could easily recapture that first fine careless rapture of the middle ‘eighties and the early ‘nineties. It is probably still there if one could only come by it. In any case, I noticed that in the long run nearly everyone ends by coming to live (and die) in Brighton. When I say ‘everyone’, I mean, of course, just what the papers mean when they announce that ‘everyone now agrees’ that so-and-so is the case. I mean that I could give at least a hundred cases of people I know, among what Paris newspapers used to call les High-lifers, turning up late in life and announcing that they now live in Brighton. Refreshing myself with another glance through Mr Piper’s aquatints, and looking back with my mind’s eye to Oriental Place, I arrive at the conclusion that they might easily do worse.’
Having decided to hand-colour 55 of the printed sets, Piper was faced with the unenviable task of painting 660 prints, to more or less the same design, over a period of months. To speed up the process, the task was shared out among various guests at Fawley Bottom, the etchings spread out along the dining room table where Piper showed his helpers how to finish each print (according to Jenkins, the entire run of Brighton Station Yard was painted by Betjeman over the summer of 1939).
In the colours themselves, Piper anticipated the wartime paintings only a few years down the line, including those images of smoking Coventry Cathedral, when the dark maroons, blues, yellows, and soot blacks captured a sense of ruinous foreboding. Here, they are but the final touch in confirming the strange, and still somewhat irreconcilable, anti-modernism of the project, embarked on in this period of such rich exchange with fellow avant-garde artists and breakers of convention.
Piper’s first biographer, Anthony West, wrote to the artist during the final stages of his draft to say that he had been faced with a difficult balance to make between ‘abstract knowledge Mr P., and the old mossy gothic Mr P.’; in the Brighton Aquatints, this in-between suite, we get precisely that.