02 Sep, 2009

Golden girl

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

She was Betjeman’s muse and Britten’s librettist. Through her long marriage to the artist John Piper she played a vital role in the British avant garde

What a shame he never found a Myfanwy – Roy Strong’s diary remark is merely an aside to the pleasure he took in a social occasion at which the artist Graham Sutherland was present. Nevertheless, it reminds us that Myfanwy Piper was one of the great begetters in life. Many shared this view. “Golden Myfanwy”, John Betjeman called her. Natasha Spender tells how, on her first visit to the Pipers’, Myfanwy came to the door holding a small child on one arm, in the crook of the other, a bowl of eggs which she was whisking with her free hand.

Fawley Bottom farmhouse near Henley-on-Thames, the home of John and Myfanwy Piper, buzzed with people and activity. One man, anxious to commission a stained-glass window for a chapel in Christchurch, New Zealand, found it hard to get a word in edgeways between reporters and visitors. “What hell it must be,” he afterwards wrote to John Piper, “having so many people at the weekend.” The artist’s fertile and diverse career involved liaison with craftsmen, designers, patrons, photographers, curators, collectors and dealers, and most received sustenance in the form of Myfanwy’s homemade pâté or her delicious meals. Frank Collieson, the manager of Heffers bookshop in Cambridge, recalls arriving with an empty suitcase. He left full of gin and tonic, sea bass and fennel, pudding and cheese, his suitcase stuffed with material for an exhibition celebrating 50 years of Shell Guides.

Myfanwy had a knack for making inventive use of garden produce, and introduced Jane Grigson to sorrel soup. She cooked with insouciance, without fuss or interruption of the ongoing chat. This in itself was nourishing; the New York Times art critic John Russell termed it “a lesson in life”, for, as a young man, he had sat listening to the laconic, understated exchange on important matters between John and Myfanwy Piper. Even in old age, Myfanwy attracted admirers. Julian Barnes was first smitten when he sat beside her at a dinner given by John Mortimer. Astonished to find himself talking to this mythological person – Betjeman’s muse and, by then, Britten’s librettist – he noted her lined face and lank hair and, in startling contrast, the vitality expressed through her eyes.

When John Piper himself was asked what contribution Myfanwy had made to his life, his answer was immediate and succinct: “Acute intelligence.” This lasting creative partnership began in 1934. Myfanwy Evans, as she then was, had met Piper before this date, but only in print. The daughter of a chemist, she had gone up to Oxford on scholarship and, while there, had begun reading the New Statesman and Nation. Her eye was caught in the review section by a critic called John Piper. Charmed by his stylish, undidactic writing, his relaxed jokes and perceptive eye, she thought, “There is someone I could talk to and, what’s more, he would make me laugh.”

It was no more than a passing thought. But in June 1934, she accepted an invitation from the painter Ivon Hitchens to spend a weekend at Sizewell, on the Suffolk coast. Following instructions, she caught a train to Saxmundham, changing there for Leiston. Hitchens, meanwhile, had sent another member of the party to meet her – a tall, thin, angular man, an artist who had so far stumbled through life with limited success. He felt five years behind his peers, for, at his father’s behest, he had spent those years in the family firm, studying law, not art. He had so far achieved scant recognition and relied on his journalism for an income. Even his three-year marriage, to the artist Eileen Holding, had unravelled, and both were now preparing to go their separate ways.

At Leiston station, Myfanwy found herself greeted by the New Statesman critic she admired, and discovered that he was also a painter. It was a warm, summer’s night and the sea was phosphorescent. “We bathed,” Myfanwy recalled, “before going to the cottage, and dried ourselves by running along the strip of sand between the shingle and the shining water.” Hitchens, who had a parsonical side to his nature, was angered by their late arrival. This did not diminish the pleasure of that hot weekend. In years to come, the meeting of John and Myfanwy became part of local history. Two nearby residents, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, always metaphorically raised their hats in celebration of this event whenever they drove over Sizewell level crossing.

Many were astonished at the speed and decisiveness with which this couple found a permanent home. Yet it all began negatively. John had no wish to live in London. The cost of fares and petrol, as well as the weekly lecture which Myfanwy gave at Morley College, meant they could not live too far out. John vetoed Essex, Surrey, Sussex and Hertfordshire, and both refused to live with low ceilings and exposed beams. Finally Myfanwy put a pin in the map at Turville, where she had once stayed with a schoolfriend, and drew a ring around it. On 31 December 1934 they set out to look for a home.

In a narrow valley that winds its way along the foot of the Chilterns, in a small hamlet occupying a corner of Oxfordshire (later Buckinghamshire), they found Fawley Bottom farmhouse. It had no water or electricity, and the ground floor was littered with torn wallpaper, glass and chicken manure. But there was a well with drinking water only a field away, as well as a tank full of rainwater that could be pumped into the kitchen. They moved in two months later, renting the farmhouse from the Stonor Park Estate, later buying it, with financial help from John’s mother – and never moved again. Here, Myfanwy recollected, “in spite of a prestigious London school, a serious addiction to art galleries and three years in Oxford, I first began to live and learn.”

Before two years had passed, this remote farmhouse had become a focus for the avant garde. John painted abstracts in one of the parlours. The artists Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger, László Moholy-Nagy and Naum Gabo were among their visitors, for Myfanwy had begun editing the most advanced art magazine of the day. Soon after meeting John, she had spent a month in Paris. An introduction to Jean Hélion, an artist and networker, had gained her access to Mondrian, Kandinsky, Jean Arp and Brâncusi, among others. It is easy to forget that such famous names were, in the 1930s, still fighting for recognition. Hélion, aware of this, urged Myfanwy to take up the abstract cause. Fifty years later, she re-evoked their conversation:

“H: You will go back to England and start a magazine of abstract art.

M: I don’t know enough.

H: You will learn.

M: I haven’t any money.

H: It will come.

M: Surely Herbert Read should do it?

H: You are young enough to afford a failure, he isn’t.

M: So be it.”

Six months later, in January 1935, the first issue of Axis appeared. Its cover was strikingly modern. Designed by John, it had a bold, uncluttered layout, sans serif lettering and crisp delivery. A quarterly magazine, its contemporary focus caught the attention of Nicolete Gray who, with Myfanwy’s help, organised the “Abstract & Concrete” exhibition in 1936, the first truly international display of abstract art in Britain. But shortly afterwards, as Ben Nicholson and Mondrian became ever more purist in their pursuit of abstraction, the Pipers began to waver in their commitment to it. Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth came to Fawley Bottom to straighten them out. They failed. Myfanwy Piper’s diary for 13 May 1936 records: “Ben and Barbara. Hell.”

The following year, the Pipers saw Picasso’s Guernica at the Exposition Internationale in Paris. Picasso’s personality and aggression, Myfanwy recollected, “acted upon us like rape just when we had settled for the Mondrian cloister”. John now lost interest in the anonymous, flat surfaces of international modernism. This art had deliberately sought to override national divisions and belonged to no particular country. But with the approach of war and the possibility of invasion, it suddenly mattered very much to which country you belonged. Moreover, the threat of destruction gave England’s heritage a new preciousness. With this, Piper found that a sense of place and history were elements he could no longer overlook. From now on, he sought to marry his interest in the modern with his love of tradition. Myfanwy upheld his change of stance. “If art is to have any importance,” she wrote, “it must be intimately related to life in its own time.”

And so, in his paintings of ruined abbeys, country houses and bomb-damaged churches, John Piper opened his art to location, belonging, identity and memory, all issues very much to the fore in today’s world. He can nowadays be seen as a pivotal figure in the history of 20th-century British art, the artist who licensed the return of much in the human psyche. But in the late 1930s, Nicholson and Hepworth looked on him as a traitor to the modernist cause, faithless to its creed. Herbert Read was another who regarded him as “an apostate”. Since then, art historians have sometimes accused him of insularity, of helping to bring about a Romantic revival incompatible with wider and more cosmopolitan values. But, though surprised by the vehemence of the antagonism he had aroused, Piper did not alter his change of focus. To Paul Nash he wrote: “After an abstract period, what a release one feels! The avenue at Stadhampton, or the watercress beds at Ewelme, are seen with such new intensity! But if one abstracts them finally, so that the posts are areas of colour, and the waterfall into the watercress bed becomes like a Ben [Nicholson] relief, then the result can be hung perhaps in Cork Street, but not against one’s heart.”

Both Pipers now distrusted ideological straitjackets. Looking at Picasso’s cubism, Myfanwy realised its modernity lay not in the shattering of form, but in the need to find a way of dealing with the remaining fragments and remnants of objects. For her, these paintings represented “not a new world but the old world in new and shattered circumstances”. And it was here she found art history in the making; not in the idealist embrace of a modernist utopia, but in the negotiations and reconciliations between rooted experience and innovative methods.

Together, the Pipers journeyed through numerous private and professional vicissitudes. They had four children and enjoyed a long marriage. At Fawley Bottom, a cowshed was converted first into a studio and then a barn. Myfanwy continued to run a marvellous home but, as her daughters admit, cleaning was not her favourite chore. Clothes lay heaped up in piles waiting to be ironed, and saucepans of fruit, left to cool for jam-making, were sometimes found congealed and forgotten. Beneath the surface order in the house lay a high degree of organisational mayhem.

The publisher Jock Murray and his wife Diana first visited Fawley Bottom in wartime. John and Myfanwy had such an almighty row that the Murrays assumed divorce was imminent. The Pipers continued for many years to bicker gently about small things, telling each other, as John Mortimer noticed, that they were completely impossible to live with, “in a way that showed their love had never died”. When it came to John Piper’s 80th birthday, a great number of celebrations took place, including a retrospective at the Tate. Myfanwy contributed to the book of essays in his honour. “I have lived with John for well over half his 80 years,” she began, adding slyly, “and think I can say that I have enjoyed every other minute of it.” John died in June 1992.

To the end, Myfanwy retained her zest for life, her sense of fun, sharpness and wit, but in old age she developed a marked sweetness of nature. She died on 18 January 1997, after a good lunch and two glasses of port, in the house where she had lived for 62 years.

• John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art, by Frances Spalding, is published next month by OUP (£25).

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