John Piper’s (1903-1992) career in art spanned over sixty years and has incorporated a huge range of artistic media including printmaking, painting, drawing and illustration, photography, stained glass, fabric design, murals, stage sets and costume design. However, Piper is most well known for his prints and paintings of the romantic heritage of Britain; his explorations of rural Britain throughout his life (a passion that started with bicycle adventures in his native Surrey as a boy) have much influence on his paintings. Piper developed a fascination with vernacular and ecclesiastical architecture. In his prints, his subject matter was predominately architectural; often abbeys, churches, houses, castles, cottages or details of architectural design . His style comes both from his English heritage and his commitment to the emergent modern and abstract movements that were developing as he left art school. Dramatic, romantic combinations of colour, calligraphic line and experimental textures are the tenets of his oeuvre.
Piper was taught at Epsom College, and then trained at the Richmond School of Art and later the Royal College of Art in London (1926-28). After this, he went on to write art criticism for the Listener and the Nation, and was among the first to recognise such contemporaries as William Coldstream, Ivon Hitchens, Victor Pasmore and Ceri Richards. During the 1930s, under the influence of Ben Nicholson and the St. Ive’s group, Piper flirted with abstraction- leading to the foundation of ‘Axis’ magazine (which advocated abstract art) with his wife Myfanwy.
During World War II, John Piper was appointed as an official war artist. He was tasked with recording the effects of the blitz on Britain’s buildings. After producing a series of drawings of Windsor Castle for H. M the Queen at the time, his work picked up interest at an increasing rate. After the war, he became a Trustee at the Tate Gallery and National Gallery and then in 1959 he became a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission.
John Piper also created – and is well known for - a stained glass window for Coventry Cathedral; the windows for Eton College Chapel and alongside Patrick Reyntiens, for Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. He is also known for his work in the graphics field, having started Contemporary Lithographs back in 1936. In 1964, the best known “A Retrospect of Churches” lithograph was produced. Also in the 1960s, he took an interest in screenprinting and etching, alongside Chris Prater at Kelpra Studio. In 1983 the Tate staged a full retrospective of his work.
John Piper passed away in Buckinghamshire on 28 June 1992, his children follow in his footsteps as artists and painters.