For anyone who feels the bleak January skies might be stripping Brighton of its aesthetic pleasures, John Piper’s Aquatints might provide a fresh lens through which to view our seaside town. Piper believed Brighton’s Regency architecture was worth protecting, calling it the ‘proper background for popular English seaside life’. Piper visited Brighton in 1938 and was inspired by both its architecture and atmosphere. His collection of twelve Brighton Aquatints was published soon after.
The success the print collection enjoyed perhaps stemmed from the surprising dichotomy they drew out between Brighton’s natural landscape and its Regency architecture. Their sharp monochrome tones and conflicting textures highlight all the contrasts of the seaside that so inspired Piper, and make the prints akin to negative photographs. Perhaps its his illumination of the buildings in the prints’ foreground that gives weary buildings seen thousands of times a shiny newness in the eye of the viewer.
There is an energy and enthusiasm packed inside the sketches’ lines that disregards the bleakness of their backdrop. The aquatint medium allows Brighton’s regency architecture to exist as a line image on top of the print’s background wash, allowing dark hues to dominate whilst still permitting the buildings a playful liveliness on the works’ surface. Piper has wired the delicate, nimble frames with an infectious energy, they dance brilliantly on such heavy backgrounds. The uncertain, temporal nature of the artificial is also emphasised by these delicate lines that barely stand upright against a sweeping blanket of gloom behind. Splashes of Brighton’s quintessential turquoise are a bold affront to the grey hues. In the depths of winter Brighton isn’t traditionally most celebrated, and the beauty of its man made landscape is easily forgotten. But Piper manages to elevate the buildings and give them a sprightliness.
The pomp and formality you might assume would be inherently to the architecture of the prince regent is not present in these works, whose messy, hazardous lines make them lively and informal. The sketches convey the buildings without confining them to certainty, the images preserve potential in their movement. Piper takes a fleeting image, an impression that pays homage to classic regency architecture, without restricting it with definite edges and straight lines. Since these buildings exist in an unsettled and unpredictable space between land and sea, it seems right that they refuse any absoluteness.
Piper himself contended that the ‘nautical style’ was “one of contrast – contrast with the subtle colour and changes of colour in the waves … exquisitely subtle, shifting, evanescent shapes of waves and sand and pebbles and cliffs”. These ‘heightened contrasts’ are constantly employed in his work, sometimes propelling it as far as the realm of fantasy. The two lithographs in the exhibition are fantastical patchworks of sea and land, night and day, merging disparate landscapes at their edges. They are the ridiculous, wonderful culmination of an obsession with opposites, and there is a magic in them. Piper creates in between spaces, outside the jurisdiction of reality and science, in which night might exist next to day. The lithographs revel in this madness, concerning themselves with the relations between their fragmented, nonsensical landscapes, which preside over the picture as a whole. It would be worth visiting simply for these two marvellous works.
Piper’s Aquatints is highly recommended for anyone who feels the winter has sucked away Brighton’s colour, and wishes to see it in a different light. The artist’s appreciation for all the brilliant contrasts and shifts of the seaside is infectious. The exhibition opened on Friday and runs until June 3rd, you can find it at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Royal Pavilion Gardens.