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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