The Artist’s Life of John Egerton Christmas Piper (1903-1992)

John Piper is best known for his romantic landscapes, views of ruined churches, stately homes and castles, but his remarkable output spans tapestry design, book jackets, screen-prints, photography, fabrics, ceramics, theatre sets and stained glass. He is considered to be one of the most significant British artists of the 20th Century.

He first came to wider attention as an official war artist in World War II and his depictions of bomb-damaged churches and landmarks made Piper a household name.


Early years

John Egerton Christmas Piper was born and grew up in Epsom, Surrey. His early years were spent 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, but after the death of his father, he was free to attend Richmond School of Art.


Artist life

At Richmond, 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, he was at odds with the regime at the Royal College and left in December 1929 after only a year.

After leaving, Piper 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 1930’s 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 1960’s and 70’s, a series of mixed media creations which combined photography, collage and drawing.


Untitled 2 from the Eye and Camera Series by John Piper
Untitled 2 from the Eye and Camera Series by John Piper


The War Years

Piper volunteered to work interpreting aerial reconnaissance photographs for the RAF at the start of the War, but was asked to work as an official war artist for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. He convinced the WAAC that he should paint bombed churches and he would travel to bombed sites as quickly as possible after an air raid – often the next day before the clear up had begun. This visit 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, making his name with the British public.


Collaboration and later years

After the war, Piper continued to write on art and architecture, and from 1950 he began working in stained glass with Patrick Reyntiens, 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, designed stage and costumes for theatre and ballet, sets for seven operas by Benjamin Britten and illustrated the Shell guides to the British Isles written by the poet John Betjeman.

Although widely exhibited in galleries in Britain, he had to wait until 1983 for a comprehensive retrospective, held at the Tate Gallery. The Tate collection now contains 180 of Piper’s works.


To see Piper works Wetpaint Gallery current has for sale please click here or contact Celia Wickham on 01453 886888 or 07831 342214