Reassessing the Pipers: Influencing and shaping British cultural heritage
Submitting InstitutionNewcastle University
Unit of AssessmentArt and Design: History, Practice and Theory
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
The artist John Piper, and his wife, the editor, anthologist and
librettist Myfanywy Piper were key figures within the cultural field of
mid-twentieth-century Britain. The research on which this case study is
based brought to public attention their reclaiming for British art a sense
of place, national identity and belonging. Through her books, essays,
public lectures, journalism, appearances at literary and arts festivals
and on radio and television Frances Spalding's research on the Pipers and
their contribution to British culture has made a major impact on public
life. The research has influenced cultural, heritage, and media
organisations, directly altered policy on conservation of heritage, and
shaped the cultural understanding of informed audiences, both in Britain
Frances Spalding was appointed to Newcastle University in 2000 and holds
a position as Professor of Art History. The largest body of underpinning
research for this impact was published in Frances Spalding's book John
Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art (1), based on research
carried out at Newcastle University. This research was ambitious owing to
the far-reaching nature of Spalding's enquiry. Unlike previous authors in
this field, she did not confine her interest to John Piper's fertile
career as an artist, but studied the full range of outputs which he and
Myfanwy Piper produced, either separately or together. Spalding was the
first person to have access to the Pipers' own archive, covering 50 years
and a huge range of correspondents, and it has since been acquired for the
nation under the Government's Acceptance-in-Lieu scheme.
Equal attention was given to every medium, be it stage design,
photography, textiles, stained-glass, murals, magazines, anthologies,
architectural journalism or librettos. Extensive original research made
possible a nuanced account of the complex interaction between the Pipers
and other artists, patrons, critics, churchmen, craftspersons,
organisations, committees, locations, and period issues. One major theme
was the move away from an explicit engagement with International
Modernism, to a stance more open to the past, to place, native traditions
and the needs of the human psyche.
Previously only superficial attention had been paid to John Piper's
passion for architecture and his work for the Shell County Guides. The
research uncovered the depth of his involvement with the built environment
and showed how he contributed to a sea-change in the public's perception
of Britain's architectural heritage. It investigated in detail, for the
first time, his major stained-glass commissions during the post-war
reconstruction period, including his work for the new Coventry Cathedral.
The validity of the argument in this book often rests on a perceptive
synthesis of the historical, cultural, political and intellectual issues
of the day. Biographical detail is repeatedly enhanced by its contextual
setting. This study amounts to a compendium of information. It has been
ransacked for many purposes, not least for factual evidence to support the
growing interest in the way British artists and writers began to challenge
modernist orthodoxies during the late 1930s and 1940s.
This research built on the 2003 exhibition Spalding had co-curated with
David Fraser Jenkins for Dulwich Picture Gallery — `John Piper in the
1930s: Abstraction on the Beach' (2). This drew attention to
Piper's interest in `Nautical Style' and emphasized the maritime influence
on modern art, architecture and design. It inspired an interdisciplinary
conference, `Modernism at the Seaside', at the De La Warr Pavilion at
Bexhill. Spalding contributed to this, and to the book of essays that
resulted from it (3) and has continued to collaborate with other
interdisciplinary projects, such as the essay collection From Self to
Shelf: The Construction of the Artist (2008) (4).
The breadth of the research, not only opened up the Pipers' careers for
cultural historians, it also pointed up aspects of John Piper's work that
are still topical today, among them his involvement with the debate over
preservation or conservation and the current attempts to revive the
dialogue between the Church and contemporary art and artists. Spalding was
also the first to give proper attention to Myfanwy Piper's contribution to
English culture, as editor, anthologist, critic and librettist, dedicating
three chapters in her book to Myfanwy Piper's collaboration with Benjamin
Britten on three operas, also publishing in an anthology an essay
specifically on Myfanwy Piper's contribution to Owen Wingrave (5).
References to the research
1) Frances Spalding (2009), John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art,
Oxford University Press. 978-0199567621. Recently republished in
paperback. REF2 Output: 170340.
2) David Fraser Jenkins and Frances Spalding, (2003) John Piper in
the 1930s: Abstraction of the Beach, Dulwich Pictures Gallery &
Merrell Publishing. Available from HEI on request.
3) Frances Spalding (2009), `In the Nautical Tradition: John Piper' in
Lara Feigel and Alexandra Harris, ed. Modernism on Sea: Art and
Culture at the British Seaside. Oxford: Peter Lang, pp. 135-143.
978-1906165406. Available from HEI on request.
4) Frances Spalding (2008), `Mondrian's Grocer', in From Self to
Shelf: The Construction of the Artist, ed. Sally Bayley and William
May, Cambridge Scholars Press, preface and essay. Available from HEI on
5) Frances Spalding (2009), `Dramatic Invention in Myfanwy Piper's
Libretto for Owen Wingrave', in Benjamin Britten: New
Perspectives on His Life and Work, edited by Lucy Walker, Boydell
and Brewer and the Britten-Pears Foundation. 978-1843835165. Available
from HEI on request.
||Period of Grant
||A Biography of John and Myfanwy Piper
||Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
||May 2001 to June 2002
||John and Myfanwy Piper: A Joint Biography (BH051726)
||Paul Mellon Foundation Senior Fellowship
||September 2005 to August 2006
Details of the impact
This research has directly benefitted a number of different audiences in
their understanding and appreciation of mid-20th century
British cultural life; it has heightened perception of Britain's cultural
heritage, and developed new audiences for British art and architecture.
The research continues to reach wide audiences through publications,
reviews, exhibitions, the media and through conferences and literary
festivals. Impact began before the book was published in October 2009,
with requests for preview articles: on John Piper's wartime paintings for
History Today (September 2009); on his work for the Sitwells at
Renishaw for the Daily Telegraph; and with a double-page spread on
Myfanwy (`Golden Girl' Guardian, 29 August 2009) (IMP1).
Orders for the book, placed before publication, created a need to reprint
two weeks after publication, the hardback edition being reprinted four
times before the paperback appeared, taking sales into five figures (10037
copies, as at 7 July 2013) (IMP2). The book continues to be widely
stocked in retail outlets. Public Lending Right figures show that up to 30
June 2012 the book was publicly loaned 3364 times (IMP3).
The impact of this project can also be assessed from the reviews of John
Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art which appeared in almost
every national newspaper, as well as many regional newspapers and leading
magazines and periodicals. The Sunday Times called it an `excellent
and expert biography' (4 October 2009); the Times Literary Supplement
(16 December 2009) claimed `Spalding's approach, sifting and collating a
vast quantity of material, has produced a valuable and deeply researched
account of the Pipers' life together.' Timothy Mowl in the Times
Higher Educational (28 September 2009) Supplement mentioned
the `excellence of this double biography' and claimed `Spalding's
engrossing and scholarly study presents an artist who relished and
skilfully crafted the complex textures of England, where he lived, and
Wales... this timely book engenders optimism.' (IMP1).
Invitations to speak at conferences, seminars, festivals, to learned
societies, including the Ecclesiastical Architects and Surveyors
Association, and arts organisations, immediately followed publication.
Over the next three years Spalding delivered close to 50 talks related to
this book, across England and Wales on some aspect of this project, at
Blenheim Palace, Dorchester Abbey, Renishaw Hall, at universities, art
clubs, on behalf of the Art Fund, and at some 25 literary festivals.
Audiences ranged from 60 to 500 (Jericho Art Week, Oxford) and averaged
200. Most of her appearances at literary festivals sold out, and many of
them led to further requests and projects. Other beneficiaries of her
research have been music lovers. She has enhanced audience appreciation of
Britten's operas by using her research into Myfanwy Piper's three libretti
for him in pre-performance talks, for English National Opera and London's
King's Place. She has also spoken at three conferences on Britten,
alongside musicologists (IMP4).
Saving Piper's work in sacred buildings
Some beneficiaries of this research were those who had a connection with
its subject. John Piper's stained-glass commissions, for example, had
involved him with many sacred buildings. Over time the history of these
commissions had either been forgotten or the intentions behind the work
had been obscured. Spalding's research impacted on ancient medieval
churches, a school chapel, two modern cathedrals, and three Oxbridge
The chapel at Nuffield College, Oxford, designed by Piper in 1961 in an
upper room, had become neglected and its use was being reconsidered when
Spalding, invited to lecture in the college, delivered a talk titled
`Sacred or Superstitious? John Piper and the Making of Sacred Spaces'. She
was asked to repeat this lecture during the college's Alumni weekend and
to advise on the chapel's restoration. A year later, she was invited to
the 50th anniversary celebration of the chapel, involving a
service, at which the Bishop of Oxford presided. Recently, Richard Mayou,
Chairman of the Art Committee, wrote `to record our gratitude to you for
helping us to a much greater understanding and awareness of our remarkable
John Piper designed chapel' (IMP5).
Spalding's work similarly impacted on the chapel at Churchill College,
Cambridge. Here Piper devised stained-glass for Richard Sheppard's
building. In the planning stage, this chapel had been the source of a
public controversy, certain Fellows regarding it as unnecessary and
Francis Crick, the discoverer of DNA, resigning his Fellowship in protest.
A direct result of Spalding's book was the decision at Churchill College,
in 2012, to mount a weekend of events celebrating the 40th
anniversary of its chapel, beginning with a lecture by Spalding (Publicity
material in IMP4). This same year Spalding opened the exhibition
celebrating the 50th anniversary of Coventry Cathedral with a
talk about Piper's Baptistery Window. In 2012 the former Bishop of Oxford
invited her to contribute to a day of public lectures, entitled `Thinking
Theologically about Modern Art', at Gresham College in London, and her
talk was afterwards published in full by the College on YouTube (1,190
views to date) (Correspondence with the Rt. Rev Richard Harries in IMP4).
Advising media on presentation of British art history
As a result of the book publication Spalding was invited to take part in
the programme `Start the Week' (BBC Radio 4 — audience figures 2 million)
(IMP6), to appear on television programme `Countryfile' (BBC2,
audience ratings, according to transmission time, range between 6 and 9
million), talking about John Piper's interest in the Rollright Stones, and
to contribute to three arts programmes on radio. She also accepted an
invitation to act as a consultant to David Dimbleby in connection with his
television series `The Seven Ages of Britain' (audience ratings 5 million
for each programme, the highest figure so far for an arts series) and to
contribute to the chapter on the twentieth-century for the accompanying
book, Seven Ages of Britain: the story of our nation revealed by its
treasures by David Dimbleby (IMP7).
Advising cultural and heritage organisations
As a result of her research into the Pipers and British art more broadly
Spalding is regularly invited to deliver lectures in support of the Art
Fund, a national body which exists to benefit public galleries and museums
and impacts on tourism in Britain (IMP8). She is regularly
approached by auction houses for advice of the correct attribution of
works of art. She has advised the Government Committee for the Export of
Works of Art and sits on the Newcastle and Northumberland Diocesan
Advisory Committee in her role as a specialist in art and architecture.
Her recent essay `A Crisis of Belonging' forms part of the catalogue to
the current `Crisis of Brilliance' exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery,
on which she also advised, and she is frequently asked for advice on John
Piper exhibitions. Leaving aside those in private galleries, the last
three years have seen Piper exhibitions at the River & Rowing Museum,
Henley; in Hereford Museum; in Kent, where a tri-part exhibition was held
simultaneously at Mascalls Gallery, Paddock Wood, Tunbridge Wells Museum
and Art Gallery and at Scotney Castle, Lamberhurst; at Blenheim Palace;
Cardiff Art Gallery & Museum; Dorchester Abbey, which mounted the
exhibition `John Piper and the Church'. Spalding lectured at all these
venues and was instrumental in the decision to proceed with the Dorchester
Abbey exhibition. A report on this event explains how she came to the
attention of the Abbey, was invited to visit it, met with a small party of
people and how her `encouragement...did more than anything else to
convince the trustees that it was a good idea' (IMP9).
Aside from prestigious public lectures given at English universities,
Spalding has also received invitations from abroad. She lectured on
British art at Smith College in Massachusetts; at the request of the
Polish Ministry of Culture, in Krakow, and was invited to give the
prestigious annual Seymour lecture on biography at the National Library of
Australia in Canberra. (Invitation in IMP4). Further significant
evidence of the impact made by her Pipers book is the fact that, soon
after it was published, she was invited to join the Leverhulme Trust's
Advisory Panel. The underpinning research's contribution to the art
history field nationally and internationally is well recognised (IMP10).
Sources to corroborate the impact
(IMP1) A list of reviews of John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art,
compiled by Oxford University Press. Available on request.
(IMP2) Book sales of John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art.
Supplied by Oxford University Press. Available on request.
(IMP3) Public Lending Right figures. Available on request.
(IMP4) Selection from files of Spalding's correspondence from readers.
Available on request.
(IMP5) Email from Richard Mayou, Emeritus Fellow, Nuffield College,
Oxford, concerning Spalding's role in the restoration of the
college chapel. Available on request.
(IMP6) BBC Radio 4, Start the Week (18/01/2010). Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00pxj6d
(IMP7) Seven Ages of Britain: the story of our nation revealed by its
treasures by David Dimbleby, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009).
Acknowledgement of contribution by Spalding on page 250.
(IMP8) Representative email (28 February 2013) from Regional Secretary of
The Art Fund reporting on Frances Spalding's lecture (McCrum Lecture
Theatre, Cambridge, 27.02.13). Available on request.
(IMP9) Report by Hugo Brunner, on the Dorchester Abbey exhibition, `John
Piper and the Church'. Acknowledgement of Spalding's role is found in the
(IMP10) The editor of the Burlington Magazine, the leading
refereed art history journal, can comment on Spalding's impact on the art
history profession nationally and internationally.