Art Detective: Mystery Castle

John Piper, The Castle, 1936, Towner Eastbourne.

This collage by John Piper, Newhaven, The Castle, 1934, raises several questions. Like: where was the pub called ‘The Castle’ located? And: ‘how come there are two lighthouses?’ And: ‘is there any significance to the subject matter of the scrumpled text chosen to represent the cliff face?’

In that period the artist lived in Surrey, but was a frequent visitor to Sussex, either renting a cottage in Rye or staying at Peggy Angus’ Firle home ‘Furlongs’, (painted by Eric Ravilious later in the decade).

Piper had by then shuffled off the shackles of his legal career, enjoyed a stint at art school, and was eager to practise different styles of painting. He was concurrently producing works of pure abstraction, but his best work of the period was more representational, with a Modernist bent, heavily influenced by the Cubists, and the naïve painting style of Alfred Wallis and Christopher Wood, both of whom he knew.

His series of collages of the East Sussex coast (there are also a couple in a similar style featuring Seaford, and the Seven Sisters) were indebted to work he’d recently seen by Georges Braque (in particular his Dieppe paintings of 1929) and the Dadaist Tristan Tzara.

But what of the mystery landmarks? A search through Pike’s Directory reveals that there was no pub in Newhaven called ‘The Castle’ in 1934: we can only assume that Piper has renamed the nearest hostelry to Newhaven’s breakwater, The Hope Inn, at the end of Fort Road. The Hope had an art deco makeover in the 1940s, before which it looked much more like the artist’s traditional representation of a public house.

If you read the newsprint – cleverly crumpled to reflect light hitting the jagged chalk-face – you can see Piper has chosen a review of King Edward and his Times by Andre Maurois, published in English in 1933. The Hope stands in front of Castle Hill and, famously, Edward VII loved a good party, so our guess is that Piper has renamed the pub to become a home-from-home for the old king.

If this seems fanciful, bear in mind that in other works in the series, the newsprint he has used appears to be carefully selected: Mythology of Blue, Seaford Head (1933) includes an ad for The Albatross Book of Living Verse – surely a reference to Coleridge’s ancient mariner – as well as a review of the book More Good Food, illustrated by Eric Bawden (another frequent visitor to the area, and habitué of The Hope Inn).

The two lighthouses are easier to clear up. Today there’s just one, the Breakwater Light (built 1891) at the end of the Westside Breakwater. Did there used to be a second light to the east? Or is Piper using Cubist licence to show the Light from another angle? Probably not: a harbour plan from 1878 shows an east light, too. Piper’s picture may be all that’s left of it. Or does anyone know of a photo?

Newhaven, The Castle, 1934 has an interesting history. Piper gave it to the art critic Myfanwy Evans, who he met in the same year he made it (it was love at first sight, and they married in 1937). It was bought at Sotheby’s by a private collector in 1997, who in 2011 lent it to Towner Eastbourne for their exhibition John Piper in Kent and Sussex. Helped by a donation from the Art Fund, and after raising money from a public appeal, Towner bought the painting for their permanent collection after the end of the show. It was exhibited in The Living Collection until August 28 2023.