Saturday 8 January 2022

A Piper Find

 When I'm in Lichfield (as I was again this week) I never need to worry about running out of reading material: the charity bookshops there are notably well stocked, and I always seem to find something of interest. On this visit I spotted Robinson, Muriel Spark's second novel, which I have never read and know nothing about, and – quite an exciting find – Romney Marsh, Illustrated and Described by John Piper, a King Penguin book published in 1950. How could I resist? It cost more money than I usually spend on these occasions, but it was in a good cause (a hospice) and it was still a very fair price – and of course King Penguins, little masterpieces of book design that they are, take up very little shelf space. How could I resist such an attractive volume?

The book is dedicated to Karen* and Osbert Lancaster, and begins with a few quotations ('Some Earlier Views') before Piper's short but informative introduction, which is followed by a list of books and articles about this hauntingly different corner of Kent – big skies, wide horizons, quiet sheep pastures (the sheep are famous) and frequent, isolated churches with strangely bare interiors. Piper is a good descriptive writer – he writes as one who knows his topographical and historical stuff and, like any artist, spends much time looking intensely at the features that interest him, especially, of course, the churches. The book continues with an alphabetical list of Romney March churches, each of which is pithily described, and many of which are illustrated in black and white. Then comes the final section, of colour plates of churches and landscape views.
The plates below show two views of St George, Ivychurch, the 'cathedral of the Marsh'. 'Owing to the pitting and scoring of the stonework by weather,' writes Piper, 'this church takes on the mood of the day in its appearance, looking dark on a grey day and pale and silvery on a clear one'. Piper seems to have drawn it on a day of mixed weather. It could have been worse: as the King (George VI) famously remarked to him at an exhibition, 'You seem to have very bad luck with your weather, Mr Piper.'

* Osbert's first wife.

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