John Piper in Kent and Sussex, Towner, Eastbourne

John Piper became an artist in defiance of his father, who urged him to join the family firm of solicitors. But although he studied law for five long years, Piper never forgot his revelatory excitement when, as a teenager, he had cycled the lanes of Kent and Sussex, filling his “journey books” with drawings, maps and carefully captioned photographs of the locations he discovered. Two of these earnest adolescent books, dating from 1921, are included in Towner’s beguiling summer exhibition at Eastbourne, which focuses on his obsession with the two southern English counties. Time and again he returned to the regions, hungrily studying them even as his work became involved with avant-garde ideas far removed from traditional landscape painting.

The images on view here favour seaside settings. “Custom House”, executed in an evocative combination of oil-paint and sand, may look at first like a celebration of boats, water and a sky flecked with freely brushed strokes of milky blue pigment, but it was produced in 1930, the year Piper’s friend Christopher Wood committed suicide. The distant paddle-steamer in the picture may reflect Piper’s grief, as it moves through the sea like a phantom departing this world forever. In a more playful mood, Piper stuck a lace doily to the surface of his 1932 “Houses on the Front”, simulating a curtain drawn back to reveal the view. But “Beach with Shells” (1933), another work employing a doily, is far darker in mood. An ominous building silhouetted on the shore seems funereal, and the shells in the foreground resemble grotesque creatures opening their mouths to scream.

After reading an article on papiers collé by Tristan Tzara in 1931, Piper noted that it had “a profound and lasting collection of influences on me”. In “Three Bathers Beside the Sea” the results are hilarious: statuesque women rest near boats where Piper has cheekily stuck on a printed tobacco advertisement for “Fine Shagg”. But no such naughtiness disturbs his “Dungeness Beach Girls” in 1933. Their sculptural repose is enhanced by his decision to use untypically thick paint, which here testifies to the influence of Braque.

Yet in the same year Piper also pushed himself towards abstraction. In “Boats on Shore”, undulating lines and colours take on a life of their own. Encouraged by his friendship with Ben Nicholson, Piper became increasingly experimental as the decade progressed. In 1934 he was elected a member of the radical Seven and Five Society. Nicholson, its president, was bent on ensuring that its next exhibition would be entirely abstract, and in 1935 Piper made a work in ink, watercolour and collage called “Abstract”, even though its range of forms contain hints of still life, buildings and even a harbour wall.

He was unable, in the end, to let go of the English settings that had ignited his imagination so powerfully in 1921, but Piper’s enduring love of Kent and Sussex did not prevent him from experimenting with collaged articles from magazines. The curving sweep of the road in 1933’s “Seaford Head” is made from just such a cutting, which includes an advertisement for The Albatross Book of Living Verse. Whether Piper intended it or not, the albatross reference brings to mind Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the same bird plays a tragic role in the fate suffered by the seamen.

The following year, in “Newhaven, The Castle”, he uses a crumpled cutting from an article on Edward VII to depict the white cliff surging up from the sea. The rest of this picture is handled with great vivacity, above all in the section where Piper draws a departing steamer with the fresh, direct simplicity of a child. But in 1934 he also discovered the possibilities of string, applying it to his canvas as a means of defining the outlines of female bathers with deft, witty economy.

By the time he returned to Newhaven in 1936-7, this vivacity had taken on a surprising amount of aggression. “Harbour Scene, Newhaven” deploys discarded sheets of music to enliven the cliff-face. The sheets had been used to clean the printing presses in the old Curwen lithography studio, and their music inspires Piper to give the rest of the picture a clangorous intensity. Most astonishing of all is “Newhaven” (1937), in which Piper indulges in a mix of squiggles, splodges and scribblings that anticipate Jackson Pollock’s uninhibited handling a decade later. In a letter to Paul Nash, he wrote: “After an abstract period what a release one feels!” It gives the Newhaven works an extraordinary spirit of unleashed spontaneity, and in 1938 Piper declared: “Pure abstraction is undernourished: it should be allowed to feed on a bare beach with tins and broken bottles.” He never lost this belief during the rest of his long career, but, as this excellent show proves, Piper was at his most daring before Hitler’s threats of invasion turned the Kent and Sussex coast into a defensive, fearful region.

Until September 25

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