An atmospheric abbey and farmyard near Langport on the Somerset Levels, it is easy to see why Piper was attracted to Muchelney; isolated and stoically romantic in its display of nostalgic English heritage. Prior to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, it housed a Benedictine order of monks established in the 10th century, and its remaining buildings had passed to English Heritage in 1927. After making some watercolour sketches of the site in 1939, Piper returned in 1941 where he made further preparatory sketches (one sold in these rooms, Sotheby’s London, 25th May 2011, lot 34) and photographs for the present work, in keeping with his topographical explorations of ‘pleasing decay’ and powerful personal vision of British architecture.
In this painting, Piper combines greys, blues and browns with vibrant highlights to evoke the atmospheric romance of the likes of Turner, Constable and Palmer. The dark, moody sky framed by shadows contrasts with Piper’s use of rich copper and bright white, creating a great visual effect to highlight the crumbling architecture of the farm and abbey buildings. With his trademark theatrical bravura technique clearly visible, Muchelney Farmyard is typical of Piper’s best work from this period, particularly characteristic of the paintings of bombed churches and architecture that he produced for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee.
Chaired by Kenneth Clark and led by major artists such as Piper, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash, the Committee was established under the Ministry of Information in 1939, in order to raise public taste, foster national culture and inspire public patriotism through state patronage of the arts. Throughout the 1930s Piper’s work had been typified by its progressive abstraction, however, it was clear the looming war made abstract and experimental art untenable for him, as it made ‘the whole pattern and structure of thousands of English sites more precious as they became more likely to disappear’ as a result of bombing. The ‘Recording Britain’ project was one of Piper’s first wartime commissions for the WAAC, and was praised by Herbert Read for showing ‘exactly what we are fighting for.' The programme was intended to document the nation’s heritage and natural beauty, including the recording of regional architectural quirks and significant landmarks in anticipation of the catastrophic effects of war. Piper’s contributions were particularly fueled by nostalgia, looking back to the Romantics to create an appropriate art that fostered a national culture based on a shared love for the English landscape and heritage.
After spending much of his childhood visiting the ruined abbeys of England with his family, it is perhaps unsurprising that in the context of war Piper should return to national monuments, such as the present work. Muchelney Farmyard is an emotional response to the threat posed to recognisable British architecture, and by extension, British culture and way of life as a whole. Painted after the German bombing campaign on Britain had already begun in 1940, this work reflects the necessity of creating war art that avoided the explicit images of death and gore, instead focusing on recording bomb sites and buildings. It was around this time that Piper’s art focused on the recently destroyed; this work is directly comparable to those produced for his series of bombed churches and cathedrals, most notably that of Coventry Cathedral the morning after its destruction in November 1940. In particular, the fiery orange and yellow pigments used in Muchelney demonstrates this immediate wartime context, also shown in his Christ Church (1940) and St Mary-le-Port, Bristol (1940).
Muchelney Farmyard was previously owned by Edmund Arnold Esq., who purchased the work from the Temple Newsam exhibition of works by Henry Moore, John Piper and Graham Sutherland, opened by Kenneth Clark on 25th July 1941. An influential champion of modern art in Britain, Director Philip Hendy had been in charge of moving Leeds City Art Gallery collections to the rural country house and maintaining an ambitious programme of exhibitions throughout the war. His matching of Moore, Piper and Sutherland as a trio of war artists proved critical in the establishment of all three artists as household names, and the exhibition was remembered as a pivotal moment in defining the Neo-Romantic movement. It showed forty-two oils by Piper, and watercolours, prints and collages from almost a decade of work, later described by Kenneth Clark as a ‘great landmark in the history of English art’.
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