John Piper: A Journey Through Snowdonia

Melissa Munro

Jagged rocks under Tryfan, John Piper
John Piper
Jagged rocks under Tryfan
ink, watercolour & gouahce, c.1948
22 x 27 inches Copyright John Piper Estate
Rock formations, John Piper
John Piper
Rock formations
ink, watercolour & gouache, c.1948
21 x 27.5 inches
Copyright John Piper Estate

From around 1943 to 1950 John Piper undertook an intense artistic journey through the mountains of north Wales, conveying a passion and vision like none other seen before. There is an exuberance and brilliancy to the tones and hues, as well as sheer drama in each of the pictures.

One of the most versatile British artists of the twentieth century, John Piper's work encompasses portraiture, landscape, architectural studies, still life, ceramics and designs for theatre, stained glass and tapestry. Piper's interest in landscape and architecture extended to all areas of Britain, however his first significant encounter with North Wales came when he was working as an official war artist during the Second World War.

Manod Mawr Quarry: storehouse for priceless objects during the Blitz

In 1943 the War Artists Advisory Committee commissioned Piper to record the interior of Manod Mawr quarry. At the time it housed artworks from the National Gallery and the Royal Collection to protect them from bombing during the Blitz.

The dark conditions of the quarry were not suitable for painting or drawing and so the commission was abandoned. It did, however, provide the opportunity for Piper to explore North Wales. This sparked an intense period of recording the mountains of Wales.

Inspiration from Turner and Wilson

During the period Piper spent in North Wales, he often referred to the guidebooks and early geological texts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as he travelled around the area recording the mountains. Not only did he admire their engraved illustrations, but they also provided a link to the artists of the period most admired by Piper, Richard Wilson (1714-1782) and J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851).

Church architecture from West Wales

Piper's painting trips to Wales did not start with Snowdonia or North Wales, but Pembrokeshire and Cardiganshire in 1936. The following year, he produced Five Chapels, 1937. The chapels depicted are: Emmaus, Llanon, Red Roses, Rhydygwyn and Tyrhos. These five collages were produced with torn and cut papers drawn and assembled. It shows his early interest in church architecture. He took a particular interest in the simple though neo-classical architecture of non-conformist chapels in Wales.

Piper in North Wales

During the unsuccessful Manod Mawr commission, Piper began to explore north Wales and the locations painted by Wilson and Turner such as Cader Idris. This trip also brought him in close proximity to Aran Fawddwy, the subject of an impressive oil, The Rise of the Dovey, 1943-44. The title of this painting refers to Creiglyn Dovey, the lake in the foreground, which is the source of the River Dovey.

Turner painted a slightly different view of Aran Fawddwy in 1798 in a watercolour titled, A bridge over the Dyfi near Dinas Mawddwy, with Aran Fawddwy beyond (collection of the British Museum). The almost abstract nature, foreboding dark atmosphere and brilliant hues of light gold, yellow, blue and red in this work are very similar to Turner's style of painting. Upon the canvas is a layer of gesso, which has been painted on top of in oils. This gives the work this very rough texture, evoking a sense of the roughness of the rocks and the elements.

In 1945 John and his family rented a cottage named Pentre. There is a painting titled Nant Ffrancon Farm, 1950, which shows the house from the roadside. It is situated in the Nant Ffrancon valley, with a steep hill leading up behind the house. The property was sub-let to the Pipers for £35 a year. At the time there was a basic muddy track, rather than a concrete road, making the house almost inaccessible in bad winter weather conditions. Along with this, the house was at the foot of a steep hill, which caused the house to be flooded by heavy rain.

opening quotemark

I felt then that I was seeing the mountains for the first time and seeing them as nobody had seen them before.

John Piper quoted in Richard Ingrams and John Piper, Piper's Places, London, 1986

The Rise of the Dovey, John Piper
John Piper
The Rise of the Dovey
oil on canvas on board, 1944
27.5 x 34.5 inches
Copyright John Piper Estate

A stormy and wintery Snowdonia

The difficulties and hardships presented by living here, even though only for short periods at a time, encouraged the Pipers to move to another rented house called Bodesi around 1947. Bodesi is situated across the road from Tryfan facing the mountain and Llyn Ogwen. This was the landlord's hafod or summer house, so the Pipers had use of it for the rest of the year. This would account for most of Piper's paintings of Snowdonia being stormy and wintery.

Bodesi was well-placed and a flurry of paintings and drawings of Tryfan began. Jagged Rocks under Tryfan, 1949-50, is a wonderful example of Piper's attention to detail by selecting very particular rock formations on and around Tryfan. It depicts Tryfan Bach (little Tryfan) situated at the base of the mountain on its western side. Its jaggedness mimics that of its parent, Tryfan. White spirals drawn in gouache are most likely patterns left on rocks by lichen which has since detached. In the lower foreground are splashes of red and yellow, in some cases accentuating the shape of the rocks, in other areas denoting the 'chrome yellow and chrome orange lichen' Piper described in his notes.

The influence of nineteenth century guides to Snowdonia in Piper's work also encouraged him to write his own guide to the area. Unfortunately it never went beyond note form, which is now in the archives at Tate Britain.

Although Piper's dream of publishing a guide to Snowdonia never came to pass, it is justifiable to say that he provided an enthralling guide through his paintings and drawings. This series of work is considered by some to be the best of all his paintings. In the 1960s, the Pipers bought a house in Pembrokeshire called Garn Fawr and much of his Welsh work from this period onwards focuses on Pembrokeshire and South Wales. He would never work in North Wales with this intensity again.

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