Queen Elizabeth's commission of watercolour views of Windsor Castle from John Piper during the war resulted in a virtuoso performance of topographical draughtsmanship allied with a powerful evocation of imminent threat. Whatever her feelings about the sombre mood of these works, there can be no doubt that they succeeded in providing a valuable contemporary record of the Castle and surrounding buildings. The twenty-six watercolours which Piper produced between 1941 and 1944 include views of the Castle from various vantage points inside the walls, distant views of the Castle from the park, and buildings in Windsor Home and Great Parks: the Gothic Summerhouse and stable block at Frogmore, Blacknest Gate Lodge and the ruins of Leptis Magna at Virginia Water.
In contrast with the lively scenes by Paul Sandby in the Print Room at Windsor, which Piper had been instructed to study closely before beginning his series, human figures are absent from Piper’s compositions. As a result the towers of the Castle assume an eerie quality of animation, like sentinels beneath impending, apocalyptic clouds. This romantic investment of expression in architecture was warily noted by Sir Owen Morshead, who described Piper’s watercolours to Queen Mary on 10 December 1941 as ‘hot and violent, deriving in feeling from Samuel Palmer, or even William Blake’.
In this view of Curfew Tower and Horseshoe Cloister there is a sense of discord in the contrast between the medieval walls and the encroaching sweep of railway lines beyond.
Piper’s watercolours of Windsor Castle create an extraordinary illusion of depth, which is partly owing to the artist’s skill as an architectural draughtsman and partly to the sheer scale of the Castle; the views it commands from its high position and the broad spaces between its different parts result in extensive and magnificently varied vistas. In contrast, his watercolours of single buildings in Windsor Home and Great Parks, are flatly monolithic.
The dark storm clouds in these watercolours, the cause of so much contention during the period of their commission, are a dramatic backdrop to the pale grey stone of the Castle and give a powerful sense of threat from the skies. Piper himself resolutely resisted Queen Elizabeth’s reported suggestions that he might ‘try a spring day’, somewhat mischievously writing to Clark in August 1943, by which point the subject had been raised several times, ‘I have been enjoying some wonderful thunderstorms piled behind Windsor Castle ... Dark grey scudders rising against pale dove colour, and pinks and dingy purples.’
Piper began work on the watercolours in the autumn of 1941, and his invoice for the first group of 10 is dated 31 May 1942. He was asked to make a further set at this point, upon which he worked intermittently throughout 1942 and 1943. His second invoice, for fourteen watercolours, is dated 24 April 1944. In total there are twenty-six watercolours; the two not included in the invoices were perhaps presented as gifts. Unfortunately, as none of the works is dated, they cannot be separated into two distinct groups.
Catalogue entry adapted from Watercolours and Drawings from the Collection of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, London, 2005