(1911-1997, North London Collegiate School 1920 – 1930)
“Willowy banks of a willowy Cherwell a
Willowy figure with lips apart
Strong and willowy, strong to pillow me
Gold Myfanwy, kisses and art.”
With these lines from a 1938 poem*, John Betjeman celebrated Myfanwy Piper, art critic and opera librettist, who was said to have been the poet’s muse and the inspiration behind two of his best works.
Mary Myfanwy Evans grew up as an only child in Hampstead, and grew to love the arts as a pupil at North London Collegiate School, where she was an active hockey player and a strong swimmer. In 1930 she won a scholarship to Oxford University to read English Literature, at a time when women were kept in the background at universities, and she became an outstanding student, also leading her swimming team to victory in a 1932 match.
Through her friendship with Nicole Binyon, Myfanwy continued her interest in modern art, and in 1934, at the age of 23, she attended a summer painting party at Sizewell. It was here that she met her future husband John Piper, one of the most versatile artists in Britain in the 20th century. He put her in contact with the French-American abstract painter Jean Helion, who encouraged her to establish and then to edit the quarterly journal Axis, which became the most radical and stylish publication on art at that time.
In 1937, she was finally able to marry John Piper, who had till then been committed to an unhappy marriage. The couple resided in a farmhouse at Fawley Bottom, which became a gathering place for artists such as W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Christopher Isherwood, and Benjamin Britten. In 1953, Britten asked Myfanwy to write the libretto for his opera The Turn of the Screw, performed for the first time in 1954 in Venice, and she went on to work with Britten on two further operas – Owen Wingrave (1971) and Death in Venice (1973).
Myfanwy Piper’s first play The Seducer, based on Kierkegaard, was mentioned in the news section of the 1959 edition of the North London Collegiate School magazine, a journal which between 1928 and 1930 published several poems which she wrote as a pupil. The following appeared in February 1930:
The strong pure line of downs swept round,
the centre dipping cone-shaped, where
a chalk pit gleamed and winked;
the Summer haze was full, and hot, and quivering,
one vast swimming opal,
vast! Adorable! And infinite.
Now, from a dream, a mere remembrance
shrill shreds of wanton nothingness,
we recreate – fragmentary, abrupt.
Myfanwy Evans. Upper VI.
Written & researched by Rugile Girdzijauskaite (Yr 13)
Gardner-Huggett, Joanna P. , “Myfanwy Evans: "Axis" and a Voice for the British Avant-Garde “
Woman's Art Journal, 21 (2) Autumn 2000 - Winter, 2001, pp. 22-26
Jenkins, David Fraser, “Obituary: Myfanwy Piper “ Independent, 22 Jan 1997
* Myfanwy at Oxford