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John Piper Artist Research Paper

John Piper’s art is a bit like being given a hanky and an Agatha Christie novel when you’ve got a cold. A drear and dark November is certainly the right time to open a survey of his Lemsip, soft-centred vision – if there is ever actually a good time to view his wan seaside resorts and sad ruins. Tate Liverpool’s attempt to reclaim this minor figure as a “great British artist” (that’s honestly what the publicity says) is like saying John Betjeman was the greatest poet of the 20th century. Both have their place, but let’s not push it.

Piper, who was born in 1903 and soldiered on until 1992, was a contemporary of such European giants as Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, Mondrian and Ernst. During the age of modernism in the first half of the 20th century Britain was an artistic backwater. In recent years, art historians have lost sight of that. They keep weaving fantasies in which Matisse comes to see Henry Moore and says: “’enry, I ’ave no ideas, can you ’elp?” This exhibition takes that revisionist fashion to such absurd extremes that it may represent some kind of breaking point. Yes, there is a case for championing Moore, Hepworth or Nash. But Piper? Pull the other one, it’s got bells on it. Church bells, of course.

A bunch of flaccid, semi-modernist exercises the young Piper daubed and glued together in the early 1930s hang beside Picasso’s Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper. We are seriously meant to think there is an interesting creative relationship going on between the two. Piper was influenced by Picasso in the same way minor artists all over the world were. In painting after painting, he used Picasso’s ideas. Yet he does nothing energetic, bold or imaginative with them. His attempts at modernism are tepid. It is like a tea room orchestra in 1930s Torquay giving its interpretation of The Rite of Spring.

How awful it must have been to be an artist in 30s Britain. What comes through, in the overlarge selection of Piper’s early work, is the sense of him being crushed and confused by the idea of what “modern art” should look like. He can see from magazines, even from visiting the studios of leading artists in Paris, what he ought to be producing. He just does not feel it, not for a second. You wonder why he bothered, when it all looks so fussily uninspired. His 1934 work Construction, Intersection is typical. With its subdued brownish colours and congested lines and curves, it has none of the purity of a proper 1930s abstractionist such as Mondrian, no sense of being driven by an inner vision.

The closest he ever got to greatness – and it was not that close – came in the 1940s, after he was born again as a sentimental traditionalist. Piper found he loved the past much more than the future. He photographed early medieval sculpture, painted the standing stones of Avebury, and moved to a farmhouse in a village called, I kid you not, Fawley Bottom.

When the Luftwaffe started bombing British cities in 1940, however, Piper entered his Finest Hour. He rose to the challenge of war, finding new purpose and meaning in this time of peril. Medieval churches in London, Bristol and Coventry were being destroyed. He painted them as they still smouldered: red embers glow in his vision of the gutted shell of Saint Mary le Port, Bristol, like the glowing beacon of the soul or a holy message of hope. In his picture of Christ Church in London, its brooding broken pillars are like ghosts haunting the ruins.

These war pictures are by far the best things he ever did. He finds a vivid analogy between architectural damage and human suffering. But Piper does not mourn in an inappropriate way for buildings as opposed to people. On the contrary, his atmospheric – yet highly accurate – studies revere the lost buildings as images of martyred humanity.

After the war, he became a popular painter of architecture and recorder of Olde England. He worked with Betjeman on the Shell Guides that encouraged motorists to stop off and look at stately homes. He designed the stained glass for Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral, which gives this exhibition a local relevance.

There is something in Piper to celebrate: a love for British architecture that was sincere. It made him perhaps Britain’s best war artist of the 1940s. Even his middlebrow sentimentality tells us something true about the blitz spirit. It is annoying that, in its zeal to make him the great British modern artist he never was, this exhibition fails to honour his actual achievements. Occasionally, a cup of weak tea is just what you want.

Famous for his romantic landscapes, views of ruined churches, stately homes and castles, John Piper ( 1903 – 1992 ) is considered to be one of the most significant British artists of the 20th Century.

Born in Epsom in 1903, Piper's inclination to become an artist was inhibited by his father's desire for him to join the family firm. Following the death of his father, Piper enrolled in the Richmond School of Art and a year later the Royal College of Art, graduating in 1929.

In the early 1930's Piper exhibited with the London Group and became secretary of the Seven and Fife Society which included Henry Moore, Ivon Hitchens, Ben Nicholson and Paul Nash. He also made a number of trips to Paris where he befriended Alexander Calder and visited the studios of Arp, Brancusi and Jean Hélion. Surrounded by these avant-garde artists, Piper's work of this period reflected the trend for abstraction but by the late 1930's he had returned to a more naturalistic style.

In 1937 Piper married the painter Myfanwy Evans who collaborated on his later work. Collaborations were important to Piper and fuelled his artistic output. The Shell Guides ( a series of illustrated books on the British Isles ) were created with the poet John Betjeman and he produced pottery with Geoffrey Eastop.




Piper worked on stage designs and costumes for theatre and ballet as well as the designs for six operas by Benjamin Britten. A versatile artist, Piper also wrote articles on art and architecture and designed stained glass windows for a number of buildings including the new Coventry Cathedral.




At the outbreak of the Second World War, Piper was commissioned by the 'war artists' scheme' to capture the affects of the war on the British landscape. The devastation of the Blitz was easily assimilated to Piper's personal interest in old ruined buildings. He had also lost his eldest brother in the First World War which may have made the commission particularly poignant and enabled him to respond with his deepest emotion. During these years he travelled the country, capturing the atmosphere of places. These scenes do not always directly relate to bomb-damage but reflect, in Piper's unique way, a sense of loss and nostalgia. In 1944 he was appointed Official War Artist. Piper died at his home in Fawley Bottom, Buckinghamshire in 1992.

This is part 1 of a 3-part post on the works of John Piper.

Parts 1 and 2 show his work chronologically. Part 3 features his 1964 series ‘Churches’, and his 1977 series ‘Victorian Dream Palaces’.


1933-34 Beach with Starfish 
ink, gouache and collage on paper 38 x 48.5 cm 
© Tate, London

1935 Abstract 1 
oil on canvas 91.7 x 106.5 cm 
© Tate, London

c1935 Composition 
oil on canvas 55.4 x 68 cm 
© The Piper Estate

1936 Littlestone-on-Sea 
ink and collage on paper 35.9 x 47.6 cm 
© The Piper Estate

1939-40 Ruined Cottage, Llanthony, Wales 
oil on canvas 39.4 x 49.7 cm 
© Mrs Clarissa Lewis

1940 Redland Park Congregational Church, Bristol 
oil on canvas 61 x 51 cm 
© The Piper Estate

1940 St Mary le Port, Bristol 
oil and pencil on canvas 76.2 x 63.5 cm 
© Tate, London

1940 The Dairy, Fawley Court 
watercolour and drawing 52.7 x 40 cm 
© Tate, London

1941 Seaton Delaval 
oil on canvas 71.1 x 111.7 cm 
© Tate, London

1941 Seaton Delaval, the Central Block  
oil on canvas 62 x 51 cm 
© The Piper estate

In 1942 Piper was suddenly sent to Bath following three nights of bombing there. He worked while the buildings were still burning. Reviewing an exhibition of war art at the National Gallery in October 1941 Piper wrote, 'after a war the controlled emotional record of actual events - the record made at once from experience and in the heat of the moment - is the only one that counts'. The watercolours he made in Bath provided the occasion for making such a record:


1942 All Saints Chapel, Bath 
ink, chalk, gouache and watercolour on paper 42.5 x 55.9 cm 
© Tate, London

1942 Somerset Place, Bath 
pencil, ink and gouache on paper 48.9 x 76.2 cm 
© Tate, London

1943 Gordale Scar, Yorkshire 
© The Piper Estate

1944 Glaciated Rocks, Nant 
pen and ink and wash on paper 
© The Piper Estate

1947 Slopes of Glyder Fawr, Llyn Adwal, Caernarvonshire, Wales 
pen, ink and watercolour 55 x 70 cm 
© The Piper Estate

1947-48 Yarnton Monument 
oil on canvas 62.9 x 75.3 cm 
© The Piper Estate

1953 Drysllwyn Castle 
lithograph 37.8  x 53.7 
© The Piper Estate

1956 Montagne sur Mer 
oil on canvas 71.1 x 91.4 cm
© The Piper Estate

1961 Coast of Brittany I 
gouache and collage on paper 55.9 x 77.5 cm 
© The Piper Estate

1961 Coast of Brittany II 
gouache and collage on paper 57.1 78.1 cm 
© The Piper Estate

1961 The Forum 
oil on canvas 106.7 x 152.4 cm 
© The Piper Estate

1961-62 Beach in Brittany 
lithograph 47.3 x 64.5 cm 
© The Piper Estate

1961-62 San Marco, Venice 
lithograph 64.5 x 46.7 cm 
© The Piper Estate

1962-63 Anglesey Beach 
lithograph 55.9 x 44.5 cm 
© The Piper Estate

In 1962 Piper designed fibreglass murals to be installed on the exterior of the conference room wing projecting from the front of the new North Thames Gas Board building in Wandsworth ( Architects E.R.Collister, 1959-1962 ). This commission helped define his later abstract work, stating that these pieces were "helpful because it taught me something of the values of clear colours, one against another."


1962 Designs for North Thames Gas Board

1962 Trial Maquette for the North Thames Gas Board Building 
oil 52 x 41.1 cm

North Thames Gas Board building

1965 Southwold II 
gouache 58.4 x 78.7 cm 
© The Piper Estate

1966 Ironbridge 
lithograph 48.3 x 64.5 cm 
© The Piper Estate

1966 Swansea Chapel 
lithograph 68.9 x 51.8 cm 
© The Piper Estate

1966-67 Bethesda Chapel 
lithograph 52.7 x 68.9 cm 
© The Piper Estate