Noticing everything: John Piper & John Betjeman

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In anticipation of a talk we're holding in March, Maggie Goodall, SPAB education and training manager, looked to our archives to explore John Piper’s involvement in the establishment of our Betjeman Award over 30 years ago, to honour his friend’s love of ancient churches.

John Betjeman began to edit the Shell Guides in 1934. These were a series of popular guidebooks sponsored by the petrol company and aimed at the ordinary motorist, characterised by Betjeman as “a plus-foured weekender”. They glamorised car travel by associating it with visits to see the county’s natural and built heritage – not just the well-known beauty spots but also “the disregarded and fast disappearing”.  

Fortuitously, Betjeman was matched with painter John Piper in 1937 by M J Richards, his editor at the Architectural Review, who thought Piper’s photographs and typography would suit Betjeman’s sensibilities and the Shell Guide style. Their collaboration proved to be the grounding for a powerful creative relationship and an enduring friendship.

Both men were “inveterate church crawlers” from their youth, and likewise shared a love of the British landscape and unfashionable architecture. Through the Shell Guides, the Collins Guide to English Parish Churches (1958) and Betjeman’s volume of verse Poems in the Porch (1954) they not only brought such buildings and places to wider notice, but contributed to their safeguarding and preservation at a time when they were under threat, both from enemy action in the Second World War and post-war reconstruction and development.

Ruth Guilding has observed of Betjeman and Piper that “both were always on the move, looking for new architectural delights, and noticing everything; both adept communicators, Betjeman with a particular knack of making his enthusiasms accessible, both tempered their professionalism with strong sentiment.” In 1942 Betjeman wrote about Piper for the Penguin Modern Painters series commissioned and edited by Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery. 

The 1930s campaign to save Waterloo Bridge had also brought together Betjeman and the SPAB. Ultimately, the long-running case was lost and the bridge was demolished and replaced, but Betjeman joined the SPAB as a life member in 1932 and remained a stalwart supporter for many years. He joined the SPAB Committee in 1954, remaining a member until 1977, and subsequently sat on the SPAB's Council from 1981 until his death in 1984.


Early the following year, the SPAB was considering how best it could commemorate him. An award in his name encouraging and celebrating the careful repair of places of worship was proposed and the Duke of Grafton – then the SPAB’s President - wrote to John Piper to invite his involvement. Piper replied by return, reminding the Duke that Betjeman had loved aquatints and proposing he design a limited-edition print of Inglesham church in Wiltshire which, Piper wrote, Betjeman had often called “my favourite church”.


This beautiful print remains available from the SPAB and a scaled-down version of Piper’s lovely image features on the SPAB John Betjeman Award winner’s certificate. Piper’s letters to the SPAB about the work and the award survive in the our archive.


It is easy to see why Inglesham moved John Betjeman, as it had the SPAB’s founder, William Morris, years before.  Standing on a gentle rise above water meadows, the humble 13th-century church of St John the Baptist, with its multiple layers of wallpaintings, woodwork from different centuries, blocked arches and surviving box pews, epitomised the “unrestored churches” that Morris so loved and valued – valued highly enough to see off an extensive restoration proposal by William Butterfield in 1885 and instead raise funds for a programme of repairs. The church is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.    



Maggie Goodall, SPAB education and training manager with thanks to SPAB Guardian Rachel Morley. Book your place for our live online talk on Piper and Betjeman, given by Professor Frances Spalding on 25 March, 6.30pm. Buy a John Piper print of Inglesham from the SPAB shop.

Images: Shell Guide, credit Maggs Bros Ltd; St John the Baptist, Inglesham credit SPAB archive; letters to the Duke of Grafton, credit SPAB archive; Aquatint by John Piper, credit SPAB archive; St John the Baptist, Inglesham, credit Philip Venning.


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