Podcast Transcript

Dunnottar Castle, John Piper

I first came across this work as a first year history of art student. We were set a task of selecting two works from Aberdeen Art Gallery to compare and contrast. The idea being to get us familiar with the collections of our local Art Gallery. I was wandering around having a look, having a think what to select, and I came into the watercolour room and I saw, kind of tucked into this corner, John Piper's Dunnottar Castle. The work instantly stood out to me, I loved it as soon as I saw it and I've loved it ever since. So I've got a little picture postcard framed on my wall at home and I've taken that around with me to every flat that I've moved to over the years since then. So for me then, this is a landscape painting which is filled with vigour and energy. There's a large central cliff in the centre of the work which dominates the greatest area of the paper, it's like a solid, immovable mound of rock and earth that's presided there on the edge of the seas for centuries. There's a foreboding sea which creeps over the cliffs lower rocks and boulders, drawing in closely around the land. Storm clouds which are heavy with rain rumble and swirl around in the sky above, although glimpses of sunlight just manage to steal their way through the clouds to illuminate the surface of the cliff, casting these magnificent shadows over the land and sea. The dark, and in comparison to the cliff, rather small silhouette for Dunnottar Castle, stands proudly on top of the cliff. Only the very basic architectural forms are shown. Piper's preference was to paint historical buildings and landscapes, notably he excluded architecture of his own lifetime, which in his own words was because 'its appearance has not yet weathered into its surroundings'. I think this is certainly very true of this scene. The Castle appears to be almost embedded into the grassy surface of the land. What really captured my attention back then, just as it does now, is Piper's fantastic use of rich, intense, dual- like colour. The painting is dark and sumptuous at the same time. The colours really emphasise the majesty of the Castle, creating an almost stained glass effect which is really beautiful. There's something almost unnerving and ominous about the exaggerated dark tones he uses, you can see shadows creeping across the land. Added to this, there's a sense of great freedom in the brushwork and pen detailing of Piper's painting. Circular patterns and waving lines represent detailing in the rock formations and the swirling brushstrokes of the sky evoke the thunderous action above, creating a sense that the sky and sea are actually rolling out towards us and that the sea will eventually envelope us too. Dunnottar Castle is an extremely atmospheric painting, anyone who's visited Dunnottar Castle will know that it realty is a very dramatic, atmospheric place, filled with history and grizzly stories. I think Piper captures the very essence of the Castle and its past in this work. The whole painting is invested with a mystical, restless energy, and it's that which I really, really love about it.