A dramatic screenprint by John Piper, inspired by one of the most fascinating houses in Cheshire, is now on display at Chester’s Grosvenor Museum.
John Piper (1903-92) was a painter of architecture, landscape and abstract compositions, a designer for the theatre and of stained-glass windows, and a writer on the arts. In the 1940s and ’50s he was one of the best known and most highly regarded painters in England. Piper began his career as a landscape painter, then experimented with abstraction in the 1930s before returning to representational painting, particularly architectural subjects. He is one of the few artists whose reputation is based on the interpretation of architecture, capturing the essence of a building’s character in line and paint to evoke feeling and emotion.
John Piper had been making prints since the 1920s, but from the 1960s printmaking became an increasingly significant aspect of his work. Working with the screenprinter Chris Prater at Kelpra Studio, Piper became fascinated by the wide range of techniques available to him. ‘Façade’ was screenprinted at Kelpra in 1987, just five years before Piper’s death.
John Piper’s 1987 screenprint ‘Façade’ is based on the curtain which he designed for a 1942 performance of ‘Façade – An Entertainment’, which comprises poems by Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) recited over an instrumental accompaniment by William Walton (1902-83). The poems were recited behind the curtain using a megaphone through the central mask. Alongside the mask is the suggestion of a Gothic house, folly, garden and lake, together with a dragonfly, butterfly and the moon.
The façade in Piper’s design was inspired by the entrance front of Eaton Hall in William Porden’s Regency Gothic incarnation. Eaton came into the possession of the Grosvenor family in the 1440s, and the first house on the present site was built in 1675-82. The house was transformed in 1804-14 by William Porden for the 2nd Earl Grosvenor, and in 1823-5 wings were added by Benjamin Gummow. The result was a spectacular Gothic mansion with spiky buttresses, pinnacles, battlements and turrets. The house was remodelled in 1846-51 by William Burn, and in 1869-83 Alfred Waterhouse transformed it into a Wagnerian palace for the 1st Duke of Westminster. This was demolished in 1961-3, leaving only the chapel and stables. A modern house was built in 1971-3, which in turn was transformed in 1989-91 for the present Duke.
The Grosvenor Museum is open Monday – Saturday 10.30-5 and Sunday 1-4, admission free, donations welcome.