OXFORD £30 (598pp) £27 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: lives in art, By Frances Spalding

A double act in word and image

Frances Spalding has a superb track-record as a writer on British art. She is an archaeologist of lives: a delver and unearther par excellence.

At her scintillating best, she is both a brilliant encapsulator and shrewd summer-up; above all, an enthusiast and advocate whose wisdom makes you eager for her subject. Superbly illustrated with colour plates, photographs and generous line drawings, this is a bumper book on both artistic Pipers, John, the painter, illustrator, stage designer and war artist; Myfanwy the opera librettist and critic. Apart from a fine chapter in Jerrold Northrop Moore's The Green Fuse, Spalding's is the most significant contribution to Piperology since Richard Ingrams's Piper's Places and Orde Levinson's John Piper: A catalogue raisonné.

Like Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, the Pipers were a barometer of an age that has all too nearly passed us by. Together, the duo spanned almost a full century. John was born in 1903; Myfanwy died in 1997 at Fawley Bottom, the flint-and-brick Chiltern farmhouse which they found, by a curious osmosis, near Henley-on-Thames. Then run-down, it was soon to be riddled with book-rooms and crannies, a kind of antiquarian bookseller's paradise. Having tamed (though not too much) Fawley and its sinuous valley, they started a family: two girls and two boys added a mélange of scampering feet and laughter to John's sprawling outhouses (soon piled high with maquettes for the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral) and Myfanwy's ramshackle kitchen, where seasoned aromas wafted, apt red wines lurked and the ghosts of WH Auden and a gangly, twentysomething Benjamin Britten perhaps still walk.

Britten belonged to both John (initially) and Myfanwy, yet she made him her own. It was John Betjeman's bicycling "my Myfanwy" ("Soap-scented fingers I long to caress"), dreaming spires-educated Myfanwy Evans, for whom Piper, almost 30, fell. They married in 1937. She was still a chrysalis of 23. Myfanwy replaced artist Eileen Holding, John's first wife, with whom he confided he was sexually incompatible.

Myfanwy was the very opposite. The budding intellectual chrysalis burgeoned into a fully-fledged butterfly. Encouraged by French abstract artist Jean Hélion, Myfanwy founded her own short-lived, cutting-edge, astonishingly influential art magazine, Axis. While John designed sets, Myfanwy wrote not just her three libretti for Britten (The Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice and Owen Wingrave), but for Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott and Australian-born Malcolm Williamson, with whom, shortly before her death, she devised one based on Strindberg's play Easter.

What she loved about Williamson, she confided, was that, like Britten, he adored the intellectual tussle, teasing out fragments of settable opera text amid verbal battles and endless gossip. Outwardly dry, Hoddinott was privately warm, hospitable and art-loving; whereas Williamson was publicly uproarious, gay, and life-enhancing.

Larger than life, Williamson had met both Pipers through Britten. "He was great fun," Myfawny recalled. With the Pipers, fun was what mattered - amid bringing up children, plus a staggering workload. Each of John's illustrated books – such as the famous Shell Guides to Britain - highlighted those places he made his own as an artist: resplendent and surviving (cloudy Royal Windsor, aqua-tinted Brighton); faded and forgotten (Dungeness, Selsey, Renishaw); or - in darkling browns and greys - those Welsh landscapes, notably Pembrokeshire, whence Myfanwy originally hailed. The pair found a modest clifftop cottage on Strumble Head and Piper had an outhouse studio. For John it was almost 60 years of relentlessly productive life, lived to the full.

Parallel lives are surely murder to write. With two geniuses, how do you encompass even one? What's crucial is that Spalding's double biography goes that extra mile: no one, hitherto, has addressed John and Myfanwy's lives head-on as one. Has she carried it off ? In the main, yes, even if unevenly. She has triumphantly knitted together all the multifarious Piper aspects – the art, ceramics, writings, jazz, jokes, fireworks - in chapters that, while jumping around, are a well-mapped-out response to a tall literary order.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence