Piper’s ‘Palladian Bridge’

Nominated by: Sarah Gray
‘Palladian Bridge’, lithographic print by John Piper from a watercolour, 1950s, held in the Bucks County Museum collection.

It was a 25-year pleasure to explore and catalogue the collections of the Bucks County Museum until I retired in 2013.  The collections reflect the international importance and beauty of the landscape gardens at Stowe, from 18th century engravings and plans of Lord Cobham’s political pleasure grounds through views by Nattes of the estate around 1805, and into the 20th century with the 58 works by John Piper CH (1903-1992), published by Tate and the Hurtwood Press in 1983 as John Piper’s Stowe.

Palladian Bridge was issued to subscribers to the book, including Bucks County Museum, as a separate mounted print for framing; it seems to sum up the romantic appeal of the Stowe buildings and landscape as Piper painted them in the 1950s.  In his Murray Guide to Buckinghamshire, written with John Betjeman in 1948, Piper described Stowe as ‘that landscape delight unique in England’ and later added ‘I have loved Stowe ever since I went to see it when I was 20…I hope my happy days at Stowe will continue. There is no end to the things one can paint there and dream about.’

During WWII, Piper was asked to write British Romantic Artists,for the propaganda series Britain in Pictures. The idea of ‘pleasing decay’ was central to his art and to his paintings of British landscapes and buildings.  We are familiar now with the Stowe landscape restored so well by the National Trust since the 1990s but in the 1950s, the gardens were part of the school established in the 1920s and picturesquely neglected.

Piper’s many ‘happy days’ drawing at Stowe in the 1950s came about because the headmaster, J F Roxborough, was an admirer and gave him a pass reading ‘Mr Piper may go where he likes in the house and grounds and is not to be molested’.  After the War John Piper and his family moved to Bucks, to Fawley Bottom Farm and he came and went as he pleased.  In his Foreword to the book Piper remembers ‘there was much more untidiness, more dilapidation of buildings and more ‘pleasing decay’ than I have ever seen there since’. 

Piper’s ‘Palladian Bridge’ was nominated by Sarah Gray on behalf of the Bucks Garden Trust Council.