Middle Mill, Pembrokeshire, 1982
John Egerton Christmas Piper
13 December 1903
Epsom, Surrey, UK
|Died||28 June 1992 (aged 88)|
Fawley Bottom, Buckinghamshire, UK
|Known for||Painting, printmaking|
John Egerton Christmas Piper CH (13 December 1903 – 28 June 1992) was an English painter, printmaker and designer of stained-glass windows and both opera and theatre sets. His work often focused on the British landscape, especially churches and monuments, and included tapestry designs, book jackets, screen-prints, photography, fabrics and ceramics. He was educated at Epsom College and trained at the Richmond School of Art followed by the Royal College of Art in London. He turned from abstraction early in his career, concentrating on a more naturalistic but distinctive approach, but often worked in several different styles throughout his career.
Piper was an official war artist in World War II and his wartime depictions of bomb-damaged churches and landmarks, most notably those of Coventry Cathedral, made Piper a household name and led to his work being acquired by several public collections. Piper collaborated with many others, including the poets John Betjeman and Geoffrey Grigson on the Shell Guides, the potter Geoffrey Eastop and the artist Ben Nicholson. In his later years he produced many limited-edition prints.
John Piper was born in Epsom, Surrey, the youngest of three sons of the solicitor Charles Alfred Piper and his wife Mary Ellen Matthews. Charles Alfred Piper's father, Charles Christmas Piper, had taken over the family bootmaking business, and was also a partner in a printing and stationery company. During Piper's childhood, Epsom was still largely countryside. He went exploring on his bicycle, and drew and painted pictures of old churches and monuments on the way. He started making guide books complete with pictures and information at a young age. Piper's brothers both served in the First World War and one of them was killed at Ypres in 1915.
John Piper attended Epsom College from 1919. He did not like the college but found refuge in art. When he left Epsom College in 1922, Piper published a book of poetry and wanted to study to become an artist. However, his father disagreed and insisted he join the family law firm, Piper, Smith & Piper in Westminster. Piper worked beside his father in London for three years, and took articles, but refused the offer of a partnership in the firm. This refusal cost Piper his inheritance, but left him free to attend Richmond School of Art. At Richmond, the artist Raymond Coxon prepared Piper for the entrance exams for the Royal College of Art, which he entered in 1928. While studying at Richmond, Piper met Eileen Holding, a fellow student, whom he married in August 1929.
Piper disliked the regime at the Royal College of Art and left in December 1929. Piper and his wife lived in Hammersmith and held a joint exhibition of their artworks at Heal's in London in 1931. Piper also wrote art and music reviews for several papers and magazines, notably The Nation and Athenaeum. One such review, of the artist Edward Wadsworth's work, led to an invitation from Ben Nicholson for Piper to join the Seven and Five Society of modern artists. In the following years Piper was involved in a wide variety of projects in several different media. As well as abstract paintings, he produced collages, often with the English landscape or seaside as the subject. He drew a series on Welsh nonconformist chapels, produced articles on English typography and made arts programmes for the BBC. He experimented with placing constructions of dowelling rods over the surface of his canvases and with using mixtures of sand and paint.
With Myfanwy Evans, Piper founded the contemporary art journal Axis in January 1935. As the art critic for The Listener, through working on Axis and by his membership of the London Group and the Seven and Five Society, Piper was at the forefront of the modernist movement in Britain throughout the 1930s. In 1935 Piper and Evans began documenting Early English sculptures in British churches. Piper believed that Anglo-Saxon and Romanesque sculptures, as a popular art form, had parallels with contemporary art. Through Evans, Piper met John Betjeman in 1937 and Betjeman asked Piper to work on the Shell Guides he was editing. Piper wrote and illustrated the guide to Oxfordshire, focusing on rural churches. In March 1938 Stephen Spender asked Piper to design the sets for his production of Trial of a Judge. Piper's first one-man show in May 1938 included abstract paintings, collage landscapes and more conventional landscapes. His second in March 1940 at the Leicester Galleries, featuring several pictures of derelict ruins, was a sell-out.
Piper had first met Myfanwy Evans in 1934 and early the next year, when his wife Eileen left him for another artist, Piper and Evans moved into an abandoned farmhouse at Fawley Bottom in the Chilterns near Henley-on-Thames. The farmhouse had no mains electricity, no mains water and no telephone connection. They married in 1937. They gradually converted the farm's outbuildings to studios for their artworks, but it was not until the 1960s that they could afford to modernise the property.
World War II
At the start of World War II, Piper volunteered to work interpreting aerial reconnaissance photographs for the RAF, but was persuaded by Sir Kenneth Clark to work as an official war artist for the War Artists' Advisory Committee (WAAC), which he did from 1940 to 1944 on short-term contracts. Piper was one of only two artists, the other being Meredith Frampton, commissioned to paint inside Air Raid Precaution (ARP) control rooms. Early in 1940 Piper was secretly taken to the ARP underground centre in Bristol, where he painted two pictures.
In November 1940 Piper persuaded the WAAC committee that he should be allowed to concentrate upon painting bombed churches. This may have reflected his pre-war conversion to the Anglican faith as much as his previous interest in depicting derelict architectural ruins. The terms of this commission meant Piper would be visiting bombed cities, and other sites, as soon as possible after an air raid: often "the following morning, before the clearing up". Hence he arrived in Coventry the morning after the Coventry Blitz air raid of 14 November 1940 that resulted in 1000 casualties and the destruction of the medieval Coventry Cathedral. Piper made drawings of the cathedral and other gutted churches in the city which he subsequently worked up into oil paintings in his studio. Piper's first painting of the bombed cathedral, Interior of Coventry Cathedral, now exhibited at the Herbert Art Gallery, was described by Jeffery Daniels in The Times as "all the more poignant for the exclusion of a human element". Piper's depiction of the east end of the cathedral was printed as a post-card during the war and sold well. In 1962 the same image was used on the cover of the official souvenir guide to the Cathedral."
After the bombing raids of 24 November 1940 on Bristol, Piper arrived in the city a day, or possibly two, later. Piper only spent a few hours in the city, but his sketches resulted, by January 1941, in three oil paintings of ruined churches: St Mary-le-Port, Bristol, The Temple Church and The Church of the Holy Nativity. Piper also painted bombed churches and other buildings in London and Newport Pagnell, and also spent a week painting in Bath after the Bath Blitz air raids in April 1942. During the summer of 1941, Piper featured in a group exhibition with Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland at Temple Newsam in Leeds. The show was a great success, attracting some 52,000 visitors before touring to other English towns and cities.
In 1943, the WAAC commissioned Piper to go to the disused slate mine at Blaenau Ffestiniog where the paintings from the National Gallery had been evacuated for safety during the Blitz. Piper found conditions in the underground quarry too difficult to work in but did paint some landscapes in the immediate area. He also toured North Wales by bicycle, cycling and climbing to photograph and sketch buildings and views in Harlech, in the Vale of Ffestiniog, on Cader Idris and on Aran Fawddwy. Piper had previously visited Snowdonia in 1939, 1940 and 1941, and often returned there after the war.
Piper was also commissioned by the WAAC to record a series of experiments on bomb shelter designs and land reclamation work. Alongside Vivian Pitchforth, he painted the bombed interior of the House of Commons. In July 1944 the WAAC appointed Piper to the full-time artist post vacated by John Platt at the Ministry of War Transport. In this role Piper painted rail and marine transport scenes in Cardiff, Bristol, Southampton and other south-coast locations. Earlier in the war, he had also painted at the locomotive works in Swindon.
Throughout the war Piper also undertook work for the Recording Britain project, initiated by Kenneth Clark, to paint historic sites thought to be at risk from bombing or neglect. He also undertook some private commissions during the war. Viscount Ridley commissioned him to produce a series of watercolours of Blagdon Hall and this led to a commission from the Royal Family for a series of watercolours of Windsor Castle and Windsor Great Park, which Piper completed by March 1942. The King, George VI was unimpressed with the dark tone of the pictures and commented, "You seem to have very bad luck with your weather, Mr Piper".
Sir Osbert Sitwell invited Piper to Renishaw Hall to paint the house and illustrate an autobiography he was writing. Piper made the first of many visits to the estate in 1942. The family retain 70 of his pictures and there is a display at the hall. Piper painted a similar series at Knole House for Edward Sackville-West. In 1943, Piper received the first of several poster commissions from Ealing Studios. His draft poster for the film The Bells Go Down featured a view of St Paul's Cathedral seen among monumental ruins.
From 1950 Piper began working in stained glass in partnership with Patrick Reyntiens, whom he had met through John Betjeman. Their first completed commission, for the chapel at Oundle School, led to Basil Spence commissioning them to design the stained-glass baptistry window for the new Coventry Cathedral. They produced an abstract design that occupies the full height of the bowed baptistry, and comprises 195 panes, ranging from white to deep blue. Piper and Reyntiens went on to design large stained-glass windows for the chapel of Robinson College, Cambridge, and The Land Is Bright, a large window in the Washington National Cathedral, as well as windows for many smaller churches. Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, completed in 1967, features an innovative stained glass lantern by Piper and Reyntiens. The lantern panels were cemented together with epoxy resin within thin concrete ribs, a technique invented for the job. Side chapels were also framed in glass to their designs.
In 1966 Walter Hussey, the Dean of Chichester Cathedral, commissioned Piper to produce a tapestry to enliven the dark area around the high altar of the cathedral. Piper had designed the cope presented to Hussey when he left his previous post in 1955; and for Chichester he produced a very brightly coloured tapestry with an abstract design of the Holy Trinity flanked by the Elements[clarification needed] and by the Evangelists. Although the tapestry received a mixed, mostly negative, reaction from the public, Piper was commissioned to create a set of clerical vestments to complement the work in 1967. Piper also created tapestries for Hereford Cathedral and Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff.
Piper made working visits to south Wales in both 1936 and 1939, and from 1943 to 1951, he made an annual painting trip to Snowdonia. He did not paint in the Welsh mountains after 1951 but did visit, and painted in Aberaeron in 1954. Piper's Snowdonia paintings and drawings were exhibited in New York in September 1947 and in May 1950, on both occasions at Curt Valentin's Buchholz Gallery. The former show was Piper's first large solo show in the United States.
For the Festival of Britain in 1951, the Arts Council of Great Britain commissioned Piper to create a large mural, The Englishman's Home, which consisted of 42 plywood panels and depicted dwellings ranging from cottages to castles. The mural was displayed in a large open porch on the South Bank festival site. Later in the 1950s, Piper produced pioneering designs for furnishing fabrics for Arthur Sanderson & Sons Ltd and David Whitehead Ltd, as part of a movement to bring art and design to the masses. He also designed a number of dust jackets for books, frequently depicting both natural and architectural forms, often in a state of decay, within theatrical framing.
He also designed windows for Eton College Chapel, which were executed by Reyntiens.
Piper continued to write extensively on modern art in books and articles. From 1946 until 1954, Piper served as a trustee of the Tate Gallery. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s he frequently visited Pembrokeshire to paint. He was a theatre set designer, including for the Kenton Theatre in Henley-on-Thames. He designed many of the premiere productions of Benjamin Britten's operas at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the Royal Opera House, La Fenice and the Aldeburgh Festival, as well as for some of the operas of Alun Hoddinott. Piper also designed firework displays, most notably for the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 1977.
John Piper died at his home at Fawley Bottom, Buckinghamshire, where he had lived for most of his life with his wife Myfanwy. His children are Clarissa Lewis, the painter Edward Piper (deceased), Susannah Brooks and Sebastian Piper; his grandchildren include painter Luke Piper and sculptor Henry Piper.
The Tate collection holds 180 of Piper's works, including etchings and some earlier abstractions. Other collections holding Piper's work include the Art Institute of Chicago, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, Dallas Museum of Art, National Galleries of Scotland, Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, Cleveland Museum of Art, Currier Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Manchester City Art Gallery, Norwich Museums, Pallant House Gallery, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Southampton City Art Gallery, The Hepworth Wakefield, The Priseman Seabrook Collection, the Usher Gallery in Lincoln, Victoria and Albert Museum and Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Major retrospective exhibitions have been held at Tate Britain (1983–84), the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Imperial War Museum, the River and Rowing Museum, Museum of Reading and Dorchester Abbey. In 2012 an exhibition called John Piper and the Church, curated by Patricia Jordan Evans of Bohun Gallery, examined his relationship with the Church and his contribution to the development of modern art within churches. In 2016, the Pallant House Gallery mounted an exhibition entitled John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism which focused on Piper's textile designs, while 2017/ 2018 saw Tate Liverpool and Mead Gallery at Warwick Arts Centre mount a joint exhibition focusing on Piper's early career, with an emphasis on the 1930s and 1940s.
- Oxfordshire, Shell Guide No. 11, 1938, (Faber & Faber).
- British Romantic Artists, 1942, (Collins), published as Volume 34 of Britain in Pictures.
- Buildings and Prospects, 1948, (London: Architectural Press), a collection of published articles.
- Romney Marsh, Illustrated and Described by John Piper, 1950, King Penguin No. 55, Penguin Books.
- Shropshire, A Shell Guide, 1951, with John Betjeman,.
- Piper's Places: John Piper in England and Wales, 1983, with Richard Ingrams,(London: Chatto & Windus, The Hogarth Press) (ISBN 0-7011-2550-0).
Examples of stained glass designed by John Piper:
St Andrew's Church, Whitmore Reans, Wolverhampton, West Midlands
Church of All Saints, Clifton, Bristol
- Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr, Martin Butlin (1964–65). The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, volume II. London: Oldbourne Press; cited at Artist biography: John PIPER b. 1903. Tate. Accessed February 2014.
- Frances Spalding (2009). John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-956761-4.
- Archaeology: A reference handbook by Alan Edwin Day, p. 254. ISBN 978-0-208-01672-0.
- Guide to Reference Books by Eugene P. Sheehy, p. 636. ISBN 978-0-8389-0390-2.
- H. C. G. Matthew & Brian Harrison (eds) (2004). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Vol. 44 (Phelps-Poston). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-861394-6.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
- John Piper, Anthony West, Secker & Warburg, 1979, p. 14
- "John Piper (John Egerton Christmas Piper), CH 1903–92". Epsom & Ewell History Explorer. Retrieved 17 September 2020.
- Peyton Skipworth (24 April 2019). "John Piper: Britain through a glass darkly". Art UK. Retrieved 27 May 2020.
- Tate. "Display caption: Beach with Starfish c.1933-34". Tate. Retrieved 30 November 2017.
- Laura Cumming (19 November 2017). "John Piper; Surrealism in Egypt: Art et Liberte 1938-48 - review". The Observer. Retrieved 30 November 2017.
- Stefan van Raay, Frances Guy, Simon Martin & Andrew Churchill (2004). Modern British Art at Pallant House Gallery. Scala Publishers. ISBN 1857593316.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
- David Fraser Jenkins & Hugh Fowler-Wright (2016). The Art of John Piper. Unicorn & The Portland Gallery. ISBN 9781910787052.
- Gardiner, Juliet (2004). Wartime, Britain 1939-1945. Review/Headline Book Publishing. ISBN 0 7553 1028 4.
- Art from the Second World War. Imperial War Museum. 2007. ISBN 978-1-904897-66-8.
- Gale, Matthew (1996). "Catelogue entry: St.Mary le Port, Bristol (1940)". Tate. Retrieved 13 July 2015.
- Foss, Brain (2007). War Paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939-1945. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10890-3.
- David Fraser Jenkins & Melissa Munro (2012). John Piper The Mountains of Wales - Paintings and Drawings from a Private Collection. National Museum of Wales. ISBN 9780720006186.
- Munro, Melissa (27 April 2012). "John Piper: A Journey Through Snowdonia". National Museum Wales. Retrieved 3 November 2015.
- "John Piper". Oriel Glyn-y-Weddw. 2014. Archived from the original on 18 October 2016. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
- Nead, Lynda (18 September 2017). "How John Piper found beauty in bombed buildings". Art UK. Retrieved 12 September 2017.
- Imperial War Museum. "War artists archive: John Piper". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 14 June 2015.
- Sykes, Alan (27 March 2013). "Exhibition at Durham shows art commissioned during the dark days of the Blitz". The Guardian. Retrieved 15 September 2015.
- Humphreys, Richard (2001). Tate Britain Companion to British Art. Tate Publishing. ISBN 185 437 3730.
- Frances Spalding (20 May 2010). "Ways With Words 2010: John Piper: a sombre yet fiery genius". The Telegraph. Retrieved 1 January 2013.
- Art from the Second World War (2015 edition). Imperial War Museum. 2015. ISBN 978-1-904897-66-8.
- Christ between St Peter & St Paul. Victoria and Albert Museum. Accessed February 2014.
- Judith Neiswander & Caroline Swish (2005). Stained & Art Glass, A Unique History of Glass Design and Making. The Intelligent Layman Publishers Ltd. ISBN 094779865X.
- "Taking Stock - Catholic Churches of England & Wales". Patrimony Committee of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. 2017. Retrieved 3 July 2017.
- Upstone, Robert (17 February 2013). "Modern British Murals". Huffington Post. Retrieved 4 April 2017.
- "John Piper: the Fabric of Modernism". Pallant House Gallery. 2016. Retrieved 9 May 2016.
- Salisbury, Martin (2017). The Illustrated Dust Jacket. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 9780500519134.
- "The Listener articles 1933–"Young English Painters: Contemporary English Drawing"
- "Lost, A Valuable Object" an essay in Myfanwy Piper's anthology "The Painter's Object", 1937.
- "England's Early Sculptors", Architectural Review, 1937.
- Peter W. Jones & Isabel Hitchman (2015). Post War to Post Modern: A Dictionary of Artists in Wales. Gomer Press. ISBN 978 184851 8766.
- McEwan, John (September 2009). "Bad luck with the Weather". Standpoint. Retrieved 2 April 2017.
- David Fraser Jenkins, John Piper, London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1983 (ISBN 0-905005-94-5)
- David Fraser Jenkins, & Frances Spalding, John Piper in the 1930s – Abstraction on the Beach, Merrell Publishers, 2003 (ISBN 1-85894-223-3).
- David Fraser Jenkins, John Piper – The Forties, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2000 (ISBN 0-85667-529-6).
- "John Piper – Master of Diversity". Archived from the original on 22 April 2001. Retrieved 25 April 2017.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link) exhibition, River and Rowing Museum, 2000.
- Jane Bowen (curator), John Piper Centenary: Crossing Boundaries, 2002 (ISBN 0-9535571-4-6).
- "John Piper and the Church", Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire, 21 April - 10 June 2012. A celebration of HM The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee by The Friends of Dorchester Abbey.
- "Major John Piper exhibition opens at Mead Gallery". Birmingham What's On. 2018. Retrieved 26 April 2018.
- William S. Peterson. John Betjeman: A Bibliography. Oxford University Press.
- Bowen, Jane (curator), John Piper Centenary: Crossing Boundaries (2002) (ISBN 0-9535571-4-6).
- Davis, Howard, A Great Job of Work For All Time. John Piper – Unknown Mosaicist, Andamento No. 3 (2009 [British Association for Modern Mosaic]) OCLC 226080837
- Heathcote, David, A Shell Eye on England: The Shell County Guides 1934–1984 (Faringdon: Libri Publishing, 2010) (ISBN 978-1- 907471-07-0)
- Jenkins, David Fraser, & John Piper, A Painter's Camera (London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1987) (ISBN 0-946590-81-8)
- Jenkins, David Fraser, John Piper – The Robert and Rena Lewin Gift to the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1992) (ISBN 1-85444-025-X).
- Levinson, Orde, Quality and Experiment: The Prints of John Piper — A Catalogue Raisonné 1932–91 (London: Lund Humphries Publishers, 1996) (ISBN 0-85331-690-2).
- Powers, Alan, et al., Piper in Print (Artist's Choice Edition, 2010) (ISBN 978-0-9558343-2-5).
- West, Anthony, John Piper (Secker & Warburg, 1979) (ISBN 0-436-56591-9).
- Woods, S. John, John Piper Paintings Drawings & Theatre Designs 1932–1954 (New York: Curt Valentin, 1955)
- Wortley, Laura, John Piper – Master of Diversity (Henley-on-Thames: River and Rowing Museum, 2000) (ISBN 0-9535571-1-1) OCLC 55970238
- John Piper (1983, Tate Gallery)
- John Piper, "Book illustration and the painter-artist", in Penrose Annual; 43 (1949), p. 52–54
- John Piper and the Church exhibition catalogue, edited by Patricia Jordan Evans and Joanna Cartwright (2012)