The River & Rowing Museum is finally looking forward to bursting it’s doors open on Thursday 20 May with a remarkable new display Painting in Coloured Light showcasing John Piper’s stained glass window work in the John Piper Gallery and the extension of the fun, family exhibition of Elmer and Friends: The Colourful World of David McKee.
The Painting in Coloured Light will shine a spotlight on Piper’s lifelong passion for stained glass and his exploration of this medium, influenced by the medieval windows he encountered from childhood. The centrepiece of the new display, recently beautifully conserved and rarely seen in public before, is Piper’s vibrant ‘cartoon’ or design for the stunning stained glass window, which he was invited to create (c. 1985 – 1986) for All Saints Church, Farnborough, West Berkshire, in memory of his close friend and collaborator Sir John Betjeman. Piper and Betjeman (1906-1984), the Poet Laureate, writer and broadcaster, shared a close friendship, a love of the British landscape, and a love of churches, embarking on many a ‘church crawl’ together. This was the last of the incredible stained glass windows Piper designed before he died in 1992 and is still the most important feature of this little parish church.
The window’s design echoes another design featuring fish, a tree and butterflies that Piper had worked on much earlier for Nettlebed. A central ‘Tree of Life’ rises upwards in a serpentine movement as a sign of profusion, laden with coloured leaves and fruit…Piper’s flowering and fruiting tree, which suggests resurrection and eternal life.*
It was created in Piper’s large barn studio at Fawley Bottom near Henley on Thames where he worked on his large-scale designs, from stained glass windows to theatre designs. The cartoon then hung in Piper’s home there for many years before being loaned by the Piper family to the River & Rowing Museum in late 2018. This impressive, vibrant and intricate cartoon gives us a rare glimpse into Piper’s creative process.
Most recently, the cartoon has been expertly and lovingly conserved by paper conservator Amelia Rampton, whose work has brought the piece and its rich colours back to life, enabling us to get a close-up view of Piper’s techniques for creating stained glass windows.
The artist’s lifelong interest in stained glass began as a boy when he traced the stained glass windows near his home in Surrey and on family holidays. Indeed, by the time he was 14, he claimed to have visited every church in the county.
Over the years, Piper designed more than 60 stained glass windows, his designs a blend of ‘traditional’ early stained glass and modernism, for local churches such as Farnborough and Nettlebed, and major cathedrals, such as those of Coventry and Liverpool. For Piper, stained glass was the perfect media to learn about how to use colour.
In Piper’s own words: “Stained glass is a great leader astray of anyone who works at it – designer and craftsman alike. In terms of colour and form it is eccentric. Colour is abnormally bright, since the light comes through the material instead of being reflected from the surface; tone is usually dictated by bounding leads or area joints of some kind. The whole thing is imprisoned within glazing bars that form an inexorable grid and are structurally necessary. This is its proper splendid discipline.”
Natalie Patel, Curator at the River & Rowing Museum, says: “We are extremely excited to feature this new spotlight display in our John Piper Gallery to reopen the Museum. Not only does it give incredible insight into John Piper’s creative process and how stained glass impacted his use of colour across all of his work, but it shows conservation in action. It’s a must-see!”
The Elmer and Friends exhibition is now being extended until 21 June, enabling visitors from across the region to step into this storyland of colour. The exhibition from Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books and celebrates 30 years of Elmer the Patchwork Elephant.
As well as original illustrations from the Elmer series, this feel-good exhibition features original artwork from Mr Benn, who first appeared on our screens 50 years ago. Visitors can take a trip down the memory lane that is Festive Road. For a touch of nostalgia, the Museum will be encouraging visitors – young and not so young – to dress up in their favourite costume for a special Mr Benn Dress Up Day on Saturday 5 June.
The Museum’s stunning riverside Chocolate Café will also be welcoming back old friends and new – with a freshly refurbished outdoor decking area. This is the perfect rendezvous for friends and family and enjoying much-needed time together over a warming coffee or hot chocolate and a bite to eat.
Tickets are now available. The Museum will be strictly limiting capacity in line with governmental social distancing guidelines, so visitors will enjoy the feeling of a more ‘exclusive access’. To manage this process, tickets must be booked in advance. General admission tickets (which include access to Painting in Coloured Light and The John Piper Gallery) and Elmer and Friends tickets (which also allow access to the rest of the Museum), are now available to purchase online via https://buy.myonlinebooking.co.uk/rrm/sessions.aspx