Spotlight on John Egerton Christmas Piper 1903-1992

Wetpaint Gallery Online is celebrating Christmas and John Piper’s seasonal birthday with a new selection of available prints from the artist’s estate. Read more about his remarkable life and works below and follow the link to view the collection.

John Piper is best known for his romantic landscapes, views of ruined churches, stately homes and castles. Still, his remarkable output spans tapestry design, book jackets, screenprints, photography, fabrics, ceramics, theatre sets and stained glass. He is considered to be one of the most significant British artists of the 20th Century. John Piper first came to wider attention as an official war artist in World War II, his depictions of bomb-damaged churches and landmarks made him a household name.

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John Piper
John Piper
John Piper_Abstract I_1935_Tate Collection_oil on canvas on plywood_
‘Abstract I’ 1935 by John Piper. Oil on canvas on plywood. Tate Collection.
Untitled 3 from the Eye and Camera Series by John Piper
‘Untitled 3’ c1979 from the Eye and Camera Series by John Piper. Mixed media.
Interior of Coventry Cathedral 1940_John PIper
‘Interior of Coventry Cathedral’ 1940 by John PIper. Oil on canvas on board. Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry.
Holkham Gate, Norfolk (262)_Screenprint_1976_610 x 831mm_Kelpra_Marlborough_John Piper
‘Holkham Gate, Norfolk’ 1976 (262) by John Piper. Screenprint.

EARLY YEARS 

John Egerton Christmas Piper was born on 13 December 1903 and grew up in Epsom, Surrey. He spent his early years exploring the countryside on his bike, where he drew and painted pictures of churches and monuments, often turning them into guidebooks, something he returned to later in life. From an early age, he wanted to study to become an artist, but his father insisted that he join the family law firm. Piper worked at the firm in London for three years and took articles but refused the offer of a partnership. This refusal cost Piper his inheritance, however after the death of his father, he was free to attend Richmond School of Art.

ARTIST’S LIFE

At the Richmond school, the artist Raymond Coxon prepared him for the entrance exams for the Royal College of Art, which Piper joined in 1928. While studying at Richmond, Piper met Eileen Holding, a fellow student, whom he married in August 1929. His time at the Royal College was brief as he was often at odds with the regime and left in December 1929 after only a year.

Piper now embarked on his career as an artist. In the early 1930’s he exhibited with the London Group, an artist-run organisation set up to nurture artists in opposition to the sensibilities of institutions like The Royal Academy. In the middle of the decade, he became secretary of the Seven and Five Society which by then had transformed into a modernistic group with artists including Henry Moore, Ivon Hitchens, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth at the fore. Formed initially to encompass conservative artistic sensibilities, they transformed Seven and Five’s outlook and staged the first exhibition of entirely abstract works in Britain.

Piper visited Paris several times where he became friends with the sculptor Alexander Calder. He attended the studios of Arp, Brancusi and Jean Hélion and these avant-garde artists had a profound influence on Piper’s work at the time. However, this direction was short-lived, and by the late 1930s, he had returned to a more naturalistic style.

In 1935 he founded the contemporary art journal Axis with the writer Myfanwy Evans, and in 1937 she became his second wife. Myfanwy collaborated with him on some of his later stage work with Benjamin Britten and was his muse for the ‘Eye and Camera’ works produced in the 1960s and ’70s, a series of mixed media creations which combined photography, collage and drawing.

THE WAR YEARS

Piper volunteered to work interpreting aerial reconnaissance photographs for the RAF at the start of the war, but later became an official war artist for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. He convinced the WAAC that he should paint bombed churches and travelled as quickly as possible after an air raid – often the next day before the clean-up had begun. This way of working led to the creation of arguably his most famous work.

He arrived in Coventry the morning after the air raid of 14 November 1940 that destroyed the medieval Cathedral. Piper made drawings of the Cathedral, which he subsequently worked up into oil paintings in his studio. His first painting of the bombed Cathedral, Interior of Coventry Cathedral, struck a chord and was reproduced and sold as a popular postcard throughout the war. This work made his name with the British public.

COLLABORATION & LATER YEARS

After the war, Piper continued to write on art and architecture. From 1950 he began working in stained glass with Patrick Reyntiens and their first commission, for a chapel at Oundle School, led to Basil Spence commissioning the stained-glass Baptistry window for the new Coventry Cathedral which began reconstruction in 1951. Such collaborations marked his post-war years. He produced pottery with Geoffrey Eastop, sets for seven operas by Benjamin Britten and the Shell guides to the British Isles written by the poet John Betjeman.

Although Piper’s work was widely exhibited in galleries in Britain, he had to wait until 1983 for a comprehensive retrospective. This show was held the Tate Gallery and their collection now contains 180 of Piper’s works, his significant contribution to British art and legacy finally confirmed.