Surrey Greats: Who was Epsom-born war artist John Piper?
PUBLISHED: 13:48 23 November 2020 | UPDATED: 16:46 23 November 2020
Famous for his stained glass window designs Piper also captured scenes from World War 2
If I wanted to write a Christmas-themed biography, could I do any better than John Piper, the artist, printmaker and designer, who was born in Epsom, on December 13 1903?
Not only was he born in the right month, but his full name was John Egerton Christmas Piper, and then there’s the stained glass. Christmas can evoke many images from tinsel, trees and turkey to carols and cards. For me, I don’t think you can beat a country church on Christmas Eve. Take a moment to look at the stained glass: if it’s a modern, collage style, it could just be by John Piper.
John was the youngest of three sons of a solicitor (Charles Piper) and Mary Matthews. That ‘Christmas’ nomenclature certainly went back to John’s grandfather, Charles Christmas Piper. We presume that he was also born around the festive season, a bit of a family tradition it seems.
The Epsom John Piper grew up in would have been a different proposition to today, as it was still largely countryside and in the absence of traffic an area that was safe to explore by bike. It wasn’t a bad place for an aspiring artist to hail from: John Constable had painted Epsom almost a century before Piper’s birth, around 1808.
Young Piper had a love of art early for he took his materials with him and drew and painted the churches and memorials that he came across. He was clearly a bit of a prodigy too, compiling his own illustrated guidebooks at a young age. Too young to serve in World War I, John saw his brothers head off to fight, one of whom was killed at Ypres in 1915.
Surrey continued to play its part in moulding Piper. He attended Epsom College (1919-22), with his brothers, as day boys. Although he does not appear to have been the happiest of students, he found his solace in art, a passion that he wanted to take up as a career, picking up a drawing prize along the way. But his father insisted that he joined the family legal firm, based in Westminster, instead. I’d like to think that John took time out to wander round to the Abbey and admire its stained glass. Piper Jnr. showed some diligence and familial loyalty by sticking at the legal ‘stuff’ for three years but when push came to shove, he turned down the offered partnership in the firm and lost his inheritance as a result. As one door closed, another opened, and John moved on to Richmond School of Art, where artist Raymond Coxon (1896-1997) appreciated Piper’s potential and prepared him for the Royal College of Art entrance exams, which John passed, entering the college in 1928, aged around 25.
Coxon was a good mentor to have with his medley of landscape, abstract and church mural work. He was a man before Piper’s own heart. Both men would also serve as war artists during World War II.
It’s often said that Piper’s work has a real ‘sense of place’, something that applies more to him than any other British artist of the 20th century. I like to think that evocation of ‘place’ was rooted in the Surrey countryside that he loved to explore as a teen. It wasn’t just churches and monuments that appealed to him either, but also the landscape, and the natural world, which spread in unfettered fashion before him back in those pre-automobile days, and yes, there were a few houses, as in his ‘Houses in Surrey’, which was one of his early works.
He captured what he saw in a modernist style, but never lost that sense of place, and indeed time, as he provided a moment of time in a season, or even at a time of day. Italy may also have a played a part: he was a regular visitor during his childhood.
It’s hard to discern a single paramount influence that made Piper. In 1933, however, he met the French artist Georges Braque (1882-1963), another Jacques of all trades: sculptor, collagist, painter, draughtsman and printmaker, and also a cubist a la Picasso. Piper picked up the mantle and experimented in various media, including collage. Although we think of Piper as a modernist, he also had an innate appreciation of traditionalism, hence his love affair with stained glass. It’s quite possible that you might find one of Piper’s modern, abstract paintings sited right next to stained glass that evokes an earlier era of craftsmanship. Piper picked up a thread from childhood in 1938 when he published the first of his guidebooks, which would prove popular. He was never one thing, but rather like Coxon and Braque was a pastiche.
Art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-83) asked Piper to join the ‘Recording Britain’ project before World War II, which led on to him becoming an official war artist from 1940. Piper didn’t retreat from the horror that he witnessed and dramatic pictures of war damage followed, which helped to make him a household name. If it was the nation’s ‘Finest Hour’, it was also Piper’s. There was something evocative, surreal and vivid about a bomb-damaged building and Piper was the best of the war artists who worked to capture that moment in time before it was cleared away. It was a bit like painting the romantic ruins of once great abbeys that had been dissolved by Henry VIII.
Piper was sent to Coventry (not as in the idiom) on November 15 1940, the day following the ‘Coventry Blitz’. Coventry’s medieval cathedral was, of course, gutted by bomb and fire damage. Piper would be back 15 years later for the opening of the city’s new cathedral, alongside the old: traditional and modern juxtaposed once more. He then went on to design the stained glass for Coventry’s new baptistry in 1958.
Piper also designed theatre and opera sets and painted a series of topographical pictures, for example, watercolours of Windsor Castle commissioned by HM Queen Elizabeth II in 1941-42 as part of that recording of Britain. Whilst a war artist, Piper diligently recorded the structures that could have been lost to bombing, such as at Windsor, but also those (like Coventry) where the worst had already occurred. Piper became well-known during the 1940s, but this was mainly as a landscapist, a tag that would endure into the 1950s. His first international exhibition took place in New York in 1948, with many similar exhibitions following around the globe over the next 20 years or so.
In the 1960s Piper collaborated with poet John Betjeman on A Retrospect of Churches, with the pair visiting many of the buildings over 1963 and ’64. They were a well-matched pair with their love of poetry and appreciation of the best of English architecture. I’d imagine they would have made a pair of engaging dinner guests. Piper joined Betjeman in getting books published, his works including Brighton Aquatints (1939) and Buildings and Prospects (1949), whilst they also worked together on the famous ‘Shell Guides’.
Piper was also prominent in textiles and tapestries with a group of tapestries commissioned for the Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford in 1986 (by a group of surgeons). It was nice to see him getting work in his home county towards the end of his career. Piper remains as relevant today as ever. I was pleased to find that Surrey Adult Learning had run a course ‘Painting in the Style of John Piper’, a one-day workshop to ‘establish a few basic methods of watercolour painting used and developed by the 20th century English artist John Piper’; quite so.
Christmas 2020 may well be a tad up in the air at the moment but if you get the opportunity, pay a visit to a local church and admire the stained glass. It’ll either be old, maybe 13th century, or it will be modern. John Piper would have appreciated both for he was both old and modern himself.