John Piper’s paintings of follies and garden buildings are well-known, but less familiar are his ceramics decorated with architectural features, including a series of ‘curly dishes’ with his wonderful whimsical interpretations of 18th century designs for rustic follies.
In 1982 gallerist Dan Klein extended his space in London’s Belgravia and that October the opening exhibition featured ceramics by Quentin Bell. Bell worked with an assistant and materials provided by the Fulham Pottery, and the aim was to show the result when ‘contemporary artists are invited to turn from canvas to ceramics’. Next in line was John Piper, who had also been invited to exhibit works in this less familiar medium. In the summer of 1982 he created around 200 ceramic pieces at his home at Fawley Bottom, near Henley on Thames.
Piper had some experience of creating pots, having previously collaborated with the potter Geoffrey Easton, who offered ‘advice and encouragement’ for this new project. But it was the young Jean-paul Landreau, recruited by the Fulham Pottery whilst on his summer break from studying at Harrow College of Art, who helped Piper realise his designs. Quentin Bell saw the work in the studio, and his first thought was ‘heavens how thoroughly John has enjoyed himself’. Piper, then 79 but described as ‘full of youthful vigour and enthusiasm’, enjoyed working in this medium, finding it ‘awfully exciting to put something that looks dull in the kiln & see it come out all shiny hot & beautiful’.
The exhibition ran for just over two weeks in November 1982. ‘Piper’s Pots’ (as the alliteratively inclined Marylebone Mercury titled their account of the show) included ceramic obelisks, candlesticks, platters and dishes in a variety of styles – some abstract, and some figurative. A selection were decorated with architectural views, including a collection of ‘curly dishes’ designed by Piper, and named for the raised lobes which gave the dishes their unusual profile.
Four of the curly dishes featured rustic follies taken from an 18th century pattern-book which went by the snappy title of Grotesque architecture, or rural amusement : consisting of plans, elevations, and sections, for huts, retreats, summer and winter hermitages, terminaries, Chinese, Gothic, and Natural Grottos, Cascades, Baths, Mosques, Moresque Pavillions, Grotesque and Rustic Seats, Green Houses, &c. Many of which may be executed With Flints, Irregular Stones, Rude Branches, and Roots of Trees. The whole containing twenty-eight entire new designs, beautifully engraved on Copper Plates, with Scales to each. to which is added, a full explanation, in letter press, and the true method of executing them. The author was ‘William Wrighte, architect’, a man about whom even the great architectural historian Sir Howard Colvin admitted ‘nothing whatsoever is known’ (although there are at present scholars doing their very best to prove him wrong).
Wrighte’s pattern book contained a series of plates which landowners could peruse before instructing capable builders to erect something similar. The four which inspired Piper were a Winter Hermitage, a Gothic Grotto, a Rustic Seat to Terminate a View and, featured here, a Hermit’s Cell. The accompanying text tells that it was to be built of large stones and trunks of trees, with a thatched roof and a floor of small pebble stones or cockle shells.
This dish, catalogue no. 56 in the 1982 exhibition, was bought at the show by the (clearly very discerning) curator of Barnsley’s fine art collections. It can be seen on display at Cannon Hall Museum, a former country house a few miles from the town.
It’s not known if the then curator of Cannon Hall was aware that the estate had its own summerhouse with rustic tree-trunk columns. Although Cannon Hall and its surrounding gardens and pleasure grounds were sold to Barnsley Council in 1951, the wider estate, including the Deffer Wood summerhouse remained with the family.
The Deffer Wood summerhouse may be the ‘root house’ to which Walter Spencer Stanhope of Cannon Hall ‘retired’ in 1778 to write verses and bring solace to his ‘harassed mind’. It is certainly a very tranquil retreat today.
Sadly the centuries old Fulham Pottery did not survive for long after these excellent exhibitions were held, and all that remains today is a grade II listed bottle kiln just off the New Kings Road. The Dan Klein Gallery operated for only a few years, although Klein (1938-2009) went on to have a distinguished career as a specialist in contemporary ceramics and glass.
Cannon Hall has the double attractions of a great collection (the Piper dish is just one item in an important display of ceramics) and a lovely designed landscape. Until 30 October 2022 you can also see some wonderful family portraits which are being shown in public for the first time – including a depiction of dapper root house retiree Walter Spencer Stanhope.
The Deffer Wood summerhouse is accessible via permissive paths, thanks to Cannon Hall Estates. Its location is not widely publicised (to deter vandals) so it’s advisable to do some research before visiting.
For more on Cannon Hall and the exhibition https://www.cannon-hall.com/spencer_stanhope
Jean-paul Landreau, Piper’s assistant on the project, is still making pots (see the comments below to hear from Jean-paul himself) http://www.jeanpaullandreau.com/english.php
There’s a curly dish featuring a Welsh castle in the collection of the River & Rowing Museum in Henley on Thames. Does anyone know the location of the others?
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14 thoughts on “Piper’s Pots: John Piper’s rural amusement”
Barbara Howard says:
Yet again an interesting piece and twist on your great theme. Thank you. Just up my street, again. In fact, just down the road where I visit my local park – Horsforth Hall Park – is another connection and the site of Walter Spencer Stanhope’s Horsforth Hall
Thanks Barbara for the kind comments, and also for the links to articles on Horsforth Hall. I will revisit the park when next in the area.
Barbara Howard says:
Nothing to see of the Hall except a few garden walls, sadly. But the park itself has been a godsend to the local community during the lockdowns and after. Thanks also to the exhibition links. Barbara
Melissa Gallimore says:
Thank you for including the decorative arts in your fantastic blog. A really interesting piece. I wish we still had the acquisitions budgets that they had in the 1980s.
Thanks for introducing me to this piece Melissa. It was a most enjoyable project finding out more about its history.
A lovely response from Jean-paul Landreau who remembers his time with Piper:
What a fantastic article on the follies and the ceramic work of John Piper with the Fulham Pottery, quite a long time ago…!, but I can remember very vividly the time as a young potter I was sent to John Piper’s place , after the Fulham Pottery ask me if I was able to work with an artist during my summer vacation ,while I was studying at Harrow College of Art .
I felt very relaxed at the time at John Piper’s place, the project came out so well, that I could not ask for better result . I always love paintings since a very young age, so talking with Piper about other artists was normal , so staying with John Piper and his wife Myfanwy who was an excellent cook by the way, was very pleasant, and hard work . Fawley Bottom was an old cottage and the Piper’s had a wonderful art collection of artists which one could see mainly in museums, I remember when you enter the cottage there was a small mobile sculpture by Sandy Calder hanging on the ceiling making a small sound when opening the cottage door, merveillleux.
Strangely enough the project with John Piper was for me at the time another summer job to get some money for my studies at Harrow college. It was only much later on that I realized the impact it had on me and my work, to become a full time potter.
I went on doing other ceramic projects with Philip Sutton and Patrick Caulfield , a large hand made ceramic mosaic in situ at The National Museum of Wales.
Many thanks for adding my name and my web site with the article it is great, I do appreciate it.
I came back to France in 2007 , after a long stay in mid Wales, I bought an old farm house , restored it ; and voilà. At the moment , I have an exhibition at the Keramiekcentrum Tiendschuur Tegelen in The Nederlands, an exhibition on color and ceramics, with Peter Beard Carolyn Genders and other artists working with ceramic. Mainly I sell my work on ceramic show in Europe.
Many thanks again , delightful article
Barbara Howard says:
Wonderful to have this added insight and personal experience added to the post. Thanks so much, Jean Paul. What an interesting life. Best wishes to you, Barbara
Christine Beevers says:
Thrilled to read of John Piper’s ceramics and his links to garden follies. In the extensive Piper collection at Renishaw Hall there are examples of the obelisks and plates. Jean Paul’s invaluable insight into working with John Piper is an invaluable addition to the archive information at Renishaw. many thanks.
Hello Chris. It’s great to know that Piper’s ceramics are in the collection, alongside his paintings. If anyone is not familiar with the Sitwell family seat of Renishaw it is well worth a visit. Great collection, wonderful gardens.
Katina Bill says:
A particularly interesting addition to your always excellent blog. Thanks.
I live near by and came across the Deffer Wood summerhouse once, by accident when I was out walking. It is indeed a lovely place and, on that occasion, a great surprise. And now I know what it is.
I think the deer shed in the grounds at Cannon Hall is also worth a mention here as it has the same tree trunk columns… but you may have covered it before?
Hello Katina. Thanks for your appreciative comments and I’m pleased you discovered this lovely building. Accidental finds are all the more special I think. You are right to mention the rustic deer shelter. I haven’t covered it here but it may pop up one day!
Barbara Howard says:
Thanks for adding this additional information, Katina. I’m in West Yorkshire and planning a day out. It’s years since my only previous visit to Cannon Hall and that was with two small boys in tow
John Davies says:
It certainly does look as though he enjoyed himself! Fancy having the energy and invention to produce this at 79. An example to us all….
Hopefully he will be my inspiration to keep scribbling for a few more years!