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John Piper Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art Frances Spalding Oxford University Press USA 1 edition


10th May 2013 History Books 7 Comments

Spalding’s approach, sifting through and collating a vast quantity of material, has produced a valuable and deeply researched account of the Piper’s life together… Ruth Guilding, Times Literary Supplement Frances Spalding recounts the histories of John and Myfanwy Piper, a couple at the centre of post-war art. Michael Prodger, Sunday Telegraph A remarkable achievement and … an invaluable source book for Piper Enthusiasts for years to come. Andrew Lambirth, The Art Newspaper Commendably thorough. William Feaver, London Review of Books A valuable and deeply researched account of the piper’s life together. Ruth Guilding, Times Literary Supplement Impeccably researched. Serena Davies, Daily Telegraph There are riches on offer beginning with Frances Spalding’s substantial double biography. Sunday Times, 29.11.09 She has triumphantly knitted together all the multifarious Piper aspects. Roderic Dunnett, The Independent Brims over with insights and revelations. Times Higher Education, Timothy Mowl This timely book engenders optimism. Timothy Mowl, Times Higher Education Engrossing and scholarly study. Timothy Mowl, Times Higher Education Handsomely produced…Spalding’s unrivalled knowledge of the Pipers’ world captures the issues clearly, sharply. Michael White, The Tablet Excellent and expert biography…touches of judicious speculation and clear-sighted glosses. Spalding…presents us with fascinating and gripping biographical material, but also offers us vivid images of a now vanished England. Val Hennessy, Daily Mail Frances Spalding’s copious and erudite biography of John and his art critic wife, Myfanwy, describes his art with considerable authority. Serena Davies, Sunday Telegraph A well-executed and meticulously researched work. Oxford University Press is to be congratulated on publishing this work on the scale the Pipers deserved. Bevis Hillier, The Spectator A fair verdict would be:…”this could not have been done better”. Bevis Hillier, The Spectator Spalding comprehensively (but never tediously) covers his work in all its staggering versatility. Bevis Hillier, The Spectator Magnificent… Just occasionally, one comes across a book of which one can say, “This could not have been done better.” Spalding’s book is in that rare class. Bevis Hillier, The Spectator

Frances Spalding is Professor of Art History at Newcastle University.

Art historian Frances Spalding here provides an exuberant and richly illustrated dual biography of John Piper–one of the best loved and capacious English artists–and his wife the librettist Myfanwy Piper, collaborator with Benjamin Britten. Together they stood at the heart of the English cultural landscape of the mid-20th century. Drawing on substantial original research, including many interviews with those who had either known or worked with the Pipers, Spalding’s biography sheds new light on the story of British art in the 1930s. In the middle of this decade, the Pipers were at the forefront of avant-garde activities in England, with Myfanwy editing the most advanced art magazine of the day and John working alongside Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and others. The book contains 80 color and 80 black-and-white plates, and also presents a wealth of information on the major commissions of John Piper’s lengthy career as well as his work in print-making, stained glass, illustration, theatre design, and fireworks. And it illuminates Myfanwy Piper’s collaborations with the composers Benjamin Britten and Alun Hoddinott, and her role as Betjeman’s muse.

Spalding’s approach, sifting through and collating a vast quantity of material, has produced a valuable and deeply researched account of the Piper’s life together… Ruth Guilding, Times Literary Supplement Frances Spalding recounts the histories of John and Myfanwy Piper, a couple at the centre of post-war art. Michael Prodger, Sunday Telegraph A remarkable achievement and … an invaluable source book for Piper Enthusiasts for years to come. Andrew Lambirth, The Art Newspaper Commendably thorough. William Feaver, London Review of Books A valuable and deeply researched account of the piper’s life together. Ruth Guilding, Times Literary Supplement Impeccably researched. Serena Davies, Daily Telegraph There are riches on offer beginning with Frances Spalding’s substantial double biography. Sunday Times, 29.11.09 She has triumphantly knitted together all the multifarious Piper aspects. Roderic Dunnett, The Independent Brims over with insights and revelations. Times Higher Education, Timothy Mowl This timely book engenders optimism. Timothy Mowl, Times Higher Education Engrossing and scholarly study. Timothy Mowl, Times Higher Education Handsomely produced…Spalding’s unrivalled knowledge of the Pipers’ world captures the issues clearly, sharply. Michael White, The Tablet Excellent and expert biography…touches of judicious speculation and clear-sighted glosses. Spalding…presents us with fascinating and gripping biographical material, but also offers us vivid images of a now vanished England. Val Hennessy, Daily Mail Frances Spalding’s copious and erudite biography of John and his art critic wife, Myfanwy, describes his art with considerable authority. Serena Davies, Sunday Telegraph A well-executed and meticulously researched work. Oxford University Press is to be congratulated on publishing this work on the scale the Pipers deserved. Bevis Hillier, The Spectator A fair verdict would be:…”this could not have been done better”. Bevis Hillier, The Spectator Spalding comprehensively covers his work in all its staggering versatility. Bevis Hillier, The Spectator Magnificent… Just occasionally, one comes across a book of which one can say, “This could not have been done better.” Spalding’s book is in that rare class. Bevis Hillier, The Spectator

John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art

A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers

Intoxicating . . . Burst[s] with the tremendous generosity of its author . . . From the first page A Book of Secrets casts the spell of a time long gone, of loves endured and lost, expectations dashed on the rocks of reality, of inner desires forever stilled, casting their shadows into history. It is written with the kind of elegance, ease and simplicity possible only from a master craftsman who has flown far beyond any learning curve and is relishing his free fall. [Holroyd] carries us as if on a magic carpet from one character to the next, and one time period to the next, with consummate grace. Holroyd is a kind of Fred Astaire on the page, his many steps becoming one grand, profound design . . . [H]is heart and humor bounce in vibrant rays off every hot-blooded, lovelorn, crazy, jealous and joyous womanand what enlightened being would have any woman be otherwise?in his book . . . A Book of Secrets is a book of magic, a sleight of hand by a master conjurer singing his swan song, sweetly, softly, with piercing wit and overwhelming compassion, his poetry in prose evoking a time past, with all its outrageous obsessions, its illegal passions, its melancholy perfume. Toni Bentley, The New York Times Book Review

Michael Holroyd is that rare biographer who is read for himself as much as for the sake of his subject . . . It is hard to see how Mr. Holroyd could do better than this book. Carl Rollyson, The Wall Street Journal

A Book of Secrets frequently casts a rosy comic glow . . . Mr. Holroyd is an impeccable writer and researcher, a man whose books are packed with intricate detail yet retain a buoyancy. They are aerodynamic; they run as silently as gliders . . . This book is a richly marbled meditation not only on the lives of several remarkable women but also on the art of biography itself . . . [Holroyds] new book contains many fine moments during which, holding on with white knuckles, you might hear yourself cry, Brilliant! Dwight Garner, The New York Times

Master raconteur and biographer of Bernard Shaw and Lytton Strachey, the always elegant Holroyd is at the top of his game . . . Holroyd writes like an angel and memorably draws the rivulets of these fluid lives together. Publishers Weekly (starred review)

A Book of Secrets is truly a book of revelations, of sudden, emotional jolts . . . The work of a master-biographer at the height of his powers . . . A beautifully structured narrative, punctuated by surprises and dazzling shifts in focus. Daisy Hay, The Daily Telegraph

Its a testament to Holroyds dexterity that this big, densely populated canvas never feels cluttered or confusing . . . As is always the case with Holroyd, the reader comes away equally inspired, equally curious, and lavishly entertained by a story-teller of the first rank. Lee Randall, The Scotsman

Richly evocative and beautifully written . . . Holroyds skills as a researcher and detective are fully deployed, in miniature; and only a master could pull off such a book. Anne Chisholm, The Spectator

A Time Magazine Top 10 Nonfiction book of 2011
A Publishers Weekly Best Nonfiction title for 2011

On a hill above the Italian village of Ravello sits the Villa Cimbrone, a place of fantasy and make-believe. The characters that move through Michael Holroyds new book are destined never to meet, yet the Villa Cimbrone unites them all.

A Book of Secrets is a treasure trove of hidden lives, uncelebrated achievements, and family mysteries. With grace and tender imagination, Holroyd brings a company of unknown women into the light. From Alice Keppel, the mistress of both the second Lord Grimthorpe and the Prince of Wales; to Eve Fairfax, a muse of Auguste Rodin; to the novelist Violet Trefusis, the lover of Vita Sackville-Westthese women are always on the periphery of the respectable world.

Also on the margins is the elusive biographer, who on occasion turns an appraising eye upon himself as part of his investigations in the maze of biography. In A Book of Secrets, Holroyd gives voice to fragile human connections and the mystery of place.


A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers










  • 7 responses to "John Piper Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art Frances Spalding Oxford University Press USA 1 edition"

  • okyanuss
    11:11 on May 10th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    This is a strange but intriguing book. The author Michael Holroyd, a distinguished English biographer, says this is his last book. His concentration in his long list of books seems to be on the English literati of the early 20th century. (His biography of Lytton Strachey was the basis of the film Carrington). This book involves a meandering search for the literary giants touched by the life and Italian villa of one Ernest Beckett. One of his mistresses was Alice Keppel, later the favorite of the Prince of Wales(who became Edward VII on the death of his mother, Queen Victoria). He starts with the impressive villa Beckett built in Italy called Villa Cimbrone and uses that as a base to trace the descendants of Beckett and the famous people they touched. If you are interested in this period of English history you will be impressed by the list: Rodin and his famous bust of Eve (another mistress of Ernest), Virginia Woolf, Alice Keppel and her daughter Violet Keppel Trefusis, D.H. Lawrence, Vita Sackville-West and her mother Lady Sackville. The list goes on and on. The most engrossing section of the whole book is the back and forth of the infamous lesbian affair between Violet Keppel Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West. A more complicated soap opera could not be written. It is incredible. And many of these people (and their descendants) wrote books in which they openly or fictionally told the stories of these affairs – so there is a lot of documentation to fall back on. Perhaps some of the more immediate and direct sources could tell the story more completely, but it is intriguing enough here to hold your attention.

    The book meanders a bit – the whole first section is taken up with Ernest and it doesn’t really get engrossing until the second part that covers the Violet-Vita affair. That section is quite incredible to say the least. Worth reading the book for this part.

    As he researches his subjects, the author picks up people along the way who seem to have some connection (like putative parenthood) with some of these famous people and wanders about Europe with them tracking down clues. My attention lagged through some of this but all in all I enjoyed the book. I would recommend it to anyone interested in this period of English history and its fascinating set of characters.

    Footnote: I thought it strange that there were no photos – is that just in the Kindle edition? I would love to see pictures of these people.

  • Stephanie W.
    15:01 on May 10th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    Greatly enjoyed A Book of Secrets.

    However, isn’t the cover photo of Villa Rufolo and not Villa Cimbrone which is at the heart of the story?? I know one should not judge a book by its cover, but…

  • BingFail
    22:47 on May 10th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    I had every expectation of liking this book. After all, it was Michael Holroyd who introduced me to the wonderful Lytton Strachey and enabled me to launch a thirty year love affair with the Bloomsbury Group. I also enjoyed his biography of Augustus John. The man knows how to write. But this book was a disappointment, mostly because it covers territory already made familiar by other authors. The only material that was really new to me was his take on Violet Trefusis who seems to have been much more than the near airhead portrayed in other biographies. Violet led the kind of outrageous, self-centered, and eccentric life that I would expect of someone in her circle. However, she was a prolific writer, and Holroyd seems to be the first to analyze in any detail her contributions as a novelist. I found nothing that would make me want to read any of her books but can understand why others might feel differently.

    My other problem with “A Book of Secrets” is that it is held together only thinly by the connections, sometimes slim, of the “illegitimate daughters” with a villa in Italy. The narrative seems disjointed, rambling, as if put together in a hurry. I also share the disappointment of others that the version on my Nook Color had no photos. In any work of biography, the reader wants to know what these people looked like.

    In short I found this book by a fine author to be disappointing. Still, I am glad that I read it. I added to my Christmas list an earlier book by Holroyd, “Basil Street Blues,” in which he describes how he became a biographer.

  • Caleb Hones
    3:31 on May 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    A truly compelling, entertaining and informative book. Holroyd’s style is so readable, the book just flows perfectly. However, I have a problem with the fact the Kindle edition doesn’t include the photos. Other publishers include photos with their books. The Kindle app on the iPad displays photos beautifully. Even on the Kindle the photos look pretty good. A serious fail for this publisher.

  • kellya
    11:40 on May 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    This is not a biography of the usual sort. The subjects–there are more than one–move in circles where the wealth, money, and cultural and political power of early 20th century England are close at hand. These inter-linked lives include a wealthy British aristocrat named Ernest Beckett; his one-time fiancée Eve Fairfax, who sits for a sculpture by Rodin; Alice Keppel, mistress of the Prince of Wales and, later, Beckett; Violet Trefusis, the child of the Beckett-Keppel liaison; and better-known Vita Sackville-West, with whom Violet conducts a famous affair. Notoriety, rather than enduring accomplishment, distinguishes all of them; they are the kind of people who are footnotes in the biographies of the famous. More well-known personages appear and disappear: Virginia Woolf, Harold Nicolson, Winston Churchill, and others. The book also centers on a house, the fabulous Villa Cimbrone, in Italy.

    Why read a book about people who aren’t very important? Holroyd opens up their lives as if he were a novelist. Not for nothing is this “A Book of Secrets.” Some of the secrets have to do with parentage, of course, and with sexual relationships long hidden or just plain forgotten. Others have to do with unexpected turns in life–what happens to the King’s mistress when the King dies? What happens to a famous beauty who lives into her nineties? How does the scandalous Trefusis/Sackville-West love affair affect the lives of those closest to them?

    Holroyd’s own voice is not absent, in a lofty biographer sort of way, from these pages. Since each of his subjects is, in his or her own way, quite desperate for love and happiness, Holroyd himself seems to be asking the question: what makes a life a happy one? Thus he incorporates detail about himself such as an account of his own visits to the Villa Cimbrone, visits accomplished in spite of ill health. There is interesting detail on the manner in which he sought out the truth of the secrets at the heart of the book, including a small portrait of an Italian academic who is an admirer (and not many people are) of Violet Trefusis, a minor writer at best. (Despite Holroyd’s careful explication of her best books, I wasn’t tempted to pick one up.) Holroyd never says it, but one senses that he has written a book about the pursuit of happiness and that he has found a pleasure in his own life and work that his subjects did not in theirs.

    M. Feldman

  • Robert Bell
    20:02 on May 11th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    This intriguing true accounting of real people, Alice Kappel, the mistress of both the second Lord Grimthorpe and the Prince of Wales, sculpter Auguste Rodin, novelist Violet Trefusis, the lover of Vita Sackville-West, held me fascinated. The author, Michael Holroyd, serves as the biographer of these characters and speaks in first person to the reader so you feel as though you are along on the journey as he searches for “A Book of Secrets”. It is a read again non-fiction exciting experience.

  • Humperdink
    0:30 on May 12th, 2013
    Reply to comment

    A BOOK of SECRETS. That title caught my eye. The author, Michael Holroyd, is a man of accomplishments, a noted biographer, the winner of literary prizes. I was intrigued by the book’s subtitle, “Illegitimate Daugters, Absent Fathers” which suggested a work of psychological depth.

    And, I have read it, despite the fact that the type is very smal in the hard-back copy, requiring some squinting and adjusting of the lamp. However, I’m not sure just what I read. This biography/memoir is divided into two parts with an epilogue. The chapter titles suggest the author’s mood and sense of what he was writing:
    The first chapter in Part One is titled, “The Importance of Being Ernest and Some Women of No Importance.”
    Well, there you have it! ‘Don’t take any of this too seriously’

    The “Ernest” in question is Ernest Beckett, who was. indeed a real person, an Englishman of little importance, a man of quick and changing passions and interests, who inherited the title, Lord Grimthorpe. He is the linchpin in this book as Ernest is, indeed, the lover of … the husband of … the father of .. a handful of women of “no” or some or, occasionally, a fair amount of importance.

    Michael Holroyd is a major character in this book as well for he begins with the story of how he first became interested in a woman named Eva Fairfax, moved by the haunting beauty of a bronze bust created by Rodin … ‘serene, clothed ina lingering air of melancholy.” Holroyd’s reaction to the bust led him to a search out the story of Eva – who was, at that time, engaged to Ernest Beckett. He had commissioned the bust.

    And thus began Holroyd’s journey into the story that is this book. It is not really a story at all, but a strange flow of female characters( Alice Keppel, the novelist Violet Trefusis, among them.) all somehow linked to Beckett. Their names flow in and out until one’s head aches from the number, none of these characters deeply realized.

    Reading this tale is rather like sitting across the table from Holroyd, no doubt a delightful racontour, while he offers a complicated series of oddly-connected stories as you finish off a glass or two of wine, while struggling to keep track of the only so-interesting ladies – all the while, charmed by his abilility to hold your attention for the strangely discontected stories.

    But, the one element that holds the book together is NOT Ernest Beckett, but, oddly enough, an enchanted house with marvelous gardens that sits high on a cliff i Ravello on Italy’s Amalffi coast. It is the famed Villa Cimbrone, dating back to the llth century. Ernest Becket owned this house at one time and Holroyd has enlivened the stories of the unimportant ladies with an accounting of the many visitors to this beautiful dwelling, including a number of those unforgettable figures from the London Bloombury Group. He also tells of his own visits to the Villa Cimbrone as he worked to make this book come alive and hold its center.

    In fact, I have visited the Villa Cimbrone twice in my life and have never forgotten the place … those lush gardens, the view from the cliffs. Unforgettable.

    Reading A BOOK OF SECRETS wasn’t memorable, indeed, rather confusing as I had often to refer to the family trees in the back of the book to keep the narrative straight. And yet, a bonus … reading A BOOK of SECRETS brought back to me the magic of walking in the Villa gardens and standing on the ruggedcliff looking out on a mist-covered sea. The world seemed emcompassed in that place. Holroyd felt it … tried to capture it, tried to tie it all together. He says this is his last book. A worthy effort.

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