Alexandra Harris

From the Prologue

Toller Fratrum is a small village in Dorset, close to where the River Hooke meets the Frome. Beside the farmhouse and a clutch of other stone buildings is the tiny church of St Basil. It was mostly rebuilt in the nineteenth century, but just to the left of the door as you enter, in the corner by the bell-pulls and the unused heater, is a decorated font that reaches further back in time. Wide eyes look out from its sandstone sides. Long-limbed figures with large moon faces, bulbously carved in deep relief, crowd together as if there is not quite room for them all. St Michael, carrying a sturdy staff, leads a procession out of Hell. Another scene is turned at right angles to fit it in, so that a four-legged animal (its significance no longer certain) lies patiently on its side as it has been doing since the twelfth century – and as it was still doing in 1935, when John Piper arrived.


He had been driving through England with his partner, Myfanwy Evans, photographing hundreds of churches and monuments. Standing in the draughty gloom of a remote nave, he would dampen the stone with a sponge so that the shapes were thrown into relief by his paraffin lamp. The light revealed some long-forgotten wonders. Crouching to enjoy the Toller Fratrum font, he thought about the primitive, expressive impulse in the art of his contemporaries. The Norman carvings seemed to him to have all the ‘bigness and strangeness’ of a portrait by Picasso. He focussed his camera on a figure who might be Christ – or Moses – and who supports the decorative rim of the font with raised hands. His face and large arms look heroic, but beneath the little pleated skirt of his tunic, he has shaky-looking knees. This image was eight hundred years old, but it still felt close and alive.


Piper was thirty-one. After a false start as a lawyer to satisfy his father he had been to the Royal College of Art and made an inspiring group of friends. He married one of them – Eileen Holding – but the marriage had broken down and now Piper was in love again. It was an exciting time. All the talk was about Paris and the latest abstract painting, and Piper was working hard on a series of geometric constructions. He was also looking at the art of ‘England’s early sculptors’, and thinking of an odd story from the thirteenth-century chronicles of Peter Langtoft. It described a ‘wander wit of Wiltshire’ who went rambling off to Rome to study the antiquities without ever having visited Stonehenge. Appalled at his ignorance of his own country, the Roman antiquaries ‘kicked him out of doors and bad him goe home and see Stonage’. This comic parable appealed to Piper. All too often, he thought, we rush off to distant places without giving a thought to the astonishing things on our doorsteps. More than anything he wanted to ‘goe home’ and see not only pre-historic Stonehenge, but the boldly striped lighthouse at Dungeness, the gardens at Stourhead, old stone barns in Oxfordshire, the lichen-patterned walls of Cornish chapels, the decorated interiors of pubs, the theatrical architecture of country houses.


These were Piper’s personal enthusiasms, but in wanting to celebrate them he was doing something more than personal. Other people were showing new appreciation of such places, and by the late 1930s it looked to many observers as if a whole concerted project of national self-discovery was underway. Artists who had previously felt compelled to disguise themselves as avant-garde Frenchmen were now to be found on English beaches sheltering their watercolours from the drizzle. Anthologists (John Betjeman, Geoffrey Grigson, Herbert Read) collected up the verse of eighteenth-century parsons or packed vivid fragments of Romanticsm into the tight compass of a paperback. Tourists paused in lay-bys to consult newly-written guidebooks. There were the church murals, the village plays, the campaigns to save historic buildings; Paul Nash’s megaliths, the erotic drama of Graham Sutherland’s landscapes, Vita Sackville-West’s old roses at Sissinghurst, Bill Brandt’s photographs of literary Britain, Florence White's regional recipes – all these things, some large, some small, suggested the many forms that ‘going home’ might take.


When war threatened, and when finally it came, the imaginative claiming of England took on more urgency. This was the period of Virginia Woolf’s cumulative, collaging novel Between the Acts, Evelyn Waugh’s grand memorial Brideshead Revisited, Osbert Sitwell’s ponderous autobiography Left Hand, Right Hand!, and T.S. Eliot’s return to ‘significant soil’ in his poem sequence Four Quartets. Writers and painters were drawn to the crowded, detailed, old-fashioned and whimsical. They were gathering souvenirs from an old country that might not survive the violence. There is a story to be told about this passionate, exuberant return to tradition. The English Eye investigates one of the richest periods in the arts of this country, and it traces the extraordinary network of personal and cultural encounters from which a modern English renaissance grew.