Spume and speed

Ever a generous artist, John Piper's lust for life broadened his canvas

John Piper liked seeing his ideas re-created by others. He readily collaborated with those who had the necessary craft to translate his designs into stained glass, tapestries, ceramics or costumes. As a designer for the stage, he never got over the thrill of seeing his 21in drawings magnified by scene painters into a theatrical backcloth 42ft wide. Likewise, it was an unforgettable moment when some 280 abstract designs, realised for him in glass by Patrick Reyntiens, came together for the first time as the "Baptistery" window in Coventry Cathedral.

His willingness to relinquish control brought Piper the rewards of "delegated art". Working with others, he learnt new techniques which enriched his artistic vocabulary. He admired the way Picasso could pick up anything and incorporate it in what he was doing. Piper, by turning his hand to a variety of tasks, felt that he had uncovered an echo of this characteristic in himself.

His designs, with their freshness and verve, are shown to good advantage in David Chipperfield's light-filled River and Rowing Museum, at Henley-on-Thames. The exhibition "John Piper; master of diversity" begins on the ground floor with a selection of his rarely-seen studies for stained glass.

In his design for the large West Window in St Andrew's, Wolverhampton, Piper boldly filled the entire space with an image of the sea because Andrew, like his brother Simon Peter, was a fisherman.

Piper's zest for life is everywhere apparent in his diverse work. He brought a breezy style to the poster he designed for Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, and invented a collage of place names for the endpapers of his Shell Guide to Oxfordshire.

Upstairs at the River and Rowing Museum, the visitor will find an extended coda to this exhibition in the form of a roomful of Piper's architectural and topographical watercolours and oils. The great variety of style and method develops the theme of diversity. Many of the techniques, encountered downstairs, reappear in these pictures.

The speed and dash in his art can lead to the suspicion that an easy facility sometimes got the upper hand. But at Henley, it is impossible not to acknowledge the vitality that informs everything he did. Each new commission brought a fresh attack. In his cloth design for Death in Venice he dissolves the facade of St Mark's into a spume of dancing highlights. This, in a way, is his signature, this lightness, this life-enhancing panache.

'John Piper' is at the River and Rowing Museum, Henley-on-Thames, until 9 July, and at the Bohun Gallery, Henley-on-Thames, 15 May-11 July

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