John Piper’s focus on the unfashionable

In Oundle, the artist John Piper is best known for the stained glass windows he designed for the Oundle School Chapel on Milton Road. When the windows were unveiled in 1956, his modernist interpretation of traditional church art was unlike anything seen before in England. They were received with universal acclaim, and remain a landmark in England’s art map.

Oundle and the surrounding villages were not unknown to Piper when he received the school’s commission. He and his friend, the poet John Betjeman, must have passed through Oundle on their travels researching sites of interest in the English towns and villages for their popular Shell travel guides series. They enjoyed motoring across the countryside, stopping to sketch and photograph buildings that others did not notice. He and Betjeman spent much of their time visiting churches. “We always thought looking at a village meant looking at the church,” Betjeman said. Piper was particularly attracted to the humble nonconformist chapels, which he would photograph to use in multimedia prints and paintings back in his studio. Betjeman credits Piper as “the first to recognise the visual appeal of non-conformist chapels”.

One of these modest chapels in Oundle caught his eye during their travels, and he and Betjeman included it in a collection of essays called First and Last Loves, published in 1952, in a chapter on non-conformist architecture.

Although Piper painted the churches in Cotterstock and Fotheringhay, the Baptist chapel at the end of West Street is the only building in Oundle that he portrayed. It has never been reproduced elsewhere.

The Zion Chapel was built in 1852 for the Particular Baptist Church. The chapel fell into disuse from 1912 until 1929, when it was reopened for public worship. It also served as the Roman Catholic Church of St Wilfrid before it was converted to residential use in 1985.

John Piper used a collage technique to depict the chapel. Torn sheets of musical staves and scraps of typewritten fonts form the building’s simple geometry, while black ink is overlaid to define the plain architectural features. The collage of musical notation adds ornamentation to a building that has none, but with its use, he highlights the building’s special purpose for preaching and hymn-singing.

The architecture of these simple chapels did not try to seduce worshippers with grandeur, a quality which would have been considered distasteful by these congregations. Betjeman wrote that the nonconformist architecture of the Victorian period was “the true architecture of the people”. He said the chapels for Methodists, Congregationalists and Baptists were not shrines, but unpretentious, serviceable “preaching houses” obeying traditional rules of proportion and craftsmanship, usually wedged in between existing buildings in towns and villages. “They succeeded in looking like what they are – chapels, so that the most unobservant traveller can tell a chapel from any other building on the street.”

Betjeman said these chapels were generally despised by architects and ignored by guidebooks. But Piper and Betjeman shared a love of unfashionable architecture, and in their own travel guide series, books and art, they aimed to teach people to see the world around them with a new eye.

Leigh Giurlando
June 2022