'Summer before the Storm': John Piper and John Betjeman at Upton Cressett, 1939

I was delighted to learn from the BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that previously unknown photographs from the John Piper archive have just been put on line after a major Heritage Lottery Fund grant to Tate Britain gallery in London had made their digitalisation possible.  Since the Shropshire: A Shell Guide was the first of the famous Shell travel guides to be published after the war (Shropshire was published in 1951) the new collection of b/w photos by the acclaimed English artist John Piper contains a considerable amount of Shropshire images ranging from Upton Cressett to small churches and market towns.

Shropshire A Shell Guide


To celebrate the unearthing of these remarkable archive photo discoveries relating to Shropshire’s pre-war heritage heritage, taken by one of England’s most acclaimed 20th century artists, Upton Cressett will be exhibiting copies of these historic photographs at a new pop up exhibition that is opening on Saturday, 22 August and will over the August Bank Holiday weekend. The exhibition – entitled ‘The Summer before the Storm: John Betjeman and John Piper at Upton Cressett, 1939’  – will be open from 12pm to 4.30pm on Saturday 29th August, Sunday 30th August and Bank Holiday Monday 31st August.

The exhibition will include photos taken of Upton Cressett Hall along with a first edition (1951) copy of Shropshire: A Shell Guide written by John Betjeman and John Piper. Entrance is free to the exhibition for those buying an admission ticket to the Hall or Gardens. Hall tickets with a tour and tea/cake is £12.50 and for the gardens only with tea/cake is £7.50.

Members of the public will also be able to view other photos of Shropshire taken by John Piper on-line from the Tate Archive. The Tate have asked that members of the pubic help with trying to identify photos that have not been identified by the Tate research team. The photos will also form part of a new photo led exhibition called ‘Upton Cressett in the 20th Century’ that will be opening next Spring in the new Adam Dant exhibition hut installation that was previously displayed at the Bloomberg Art Space in London.
See:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02z9k86/p02z9k6x.

John Piper was one of the most influential and important English artists of the 29th century. In the piece, you can say that all his approx 250  images of Shropshire – some of which have not yet been identified – can be seen at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/tga-8728-1-31/piper-photographs-of-shropshire/objects.

The exhibition will be a ‘pop up’ temporary exhibition that will give the Shropshire public a chance to see the work of John Piper that is available on line. There will be a new exhibition opening next Spring 2016 that will feature a wider range of photos of Upton Cressett taken by John Piper in 1939, along with other photographs that tell the story of the decline and restoration of Upton Cressett in the 20th century.


Whilst deserted for decades, the Hall and Gatehouse and Norman church of St Michael remained of considerable interest to architectural historians such as Nikolaus Pevsner. In the summer of 1938, the poet John Betjeman visited Upton Cressett with the artist John Piper whilst researching their Shell Guide To Shropshire (Faber & Faber). Because of the War, their guide-book – the first of the post-war Shell guides – was not published until 1951.

by Lola Walker (Lola Marsden), vintage bromide print, 1950s

In the introduction to his Shell Guide, Betjeman writes that ‘the particular beauties of Shropshire appear in the most unexpected places, such as Hawkstone Park, Tong, Bromfield and Upton Cressett’. Inside the guide, Betjeman writes that Upton Cressett is ‘best approached on foot, horse or bicycle; only so can its peace and various landscape be appreciated. The road to it stops at what was once the manor of Upton Cresset…An orchard surrounds the disappeared Tudor brick gatehouse with towers at its corners and stone dressings to the windows’. The church of St. Michael was also photographed by John Piper with Betjeman writing of its ‘rich Norman chancel arch and south door, and a little late Flemish glass’.

Several years after the Shropshire Shell Guide was published in 1951, Nikolaus Pevsner visited Upton Cressett in the late 1950s for his Shropshire edition of The Buildings of England. Despite its derelict and overgrown state, he described it as a ‘remarkable Tudor house of brick’ that deserved more academic study.