Lacock Abbey by John Piper
In March 1942, whilst on tour in nearby Bath to survey bomb damage, John Piper (1903-1992) painted his impressions of Lacock Abbey. In this resulting landscape, romantic effect, rather than topographic detail, is of paramount concern.
John Piper belonged to a movement of British artists who were deeply rooted in British landscape and its history, and drew particular inspiration from the work of Romantic visionaries of the late 18th and 19th centuries, including William Blake and Samuel Palmer.
The movement is Neo-Romanticism and it encompasses a group of artists who infused their works with the dramatic intensity of nature’s effects and with a sense of psychological unease. Although the term is applied to a range of developments in arts and literature occurring in the late 19th and 20th century, here it is used to reflect the sombre, elegiac atmosphere conjured by painters working during the approach and aftermath of World War II.
Official war artist
As an official war artist, John Piper joined a national scheme sponsored by the British Government to document the effects of war on the British landscape. Piper’s landscapes went beyond documentation, however, and sought to foster patriotic engagement with monuments and buildings through expressive pictorial means.
Looking more closely at Piper’s painting, dynamic swirls of colour and areas of furious cross hatching bestow an ominous and foreboding quality to the scene. Indeed, Piper was struck by the decay of the Abbey and wrote of 'peeling yellow plaster, dampening stonework, trestle tables sagging under dusty fragments'.
Although more than a century separates Piper’s art from the visionary pastorals of his Romantic predecessors, this view of Lacock Abbey shows that the pursuit of the sublime continued to permeate British art well into the 20th century.