A beginner's guide to John Piper

John Piper was one of the most popular, prolific and versatile British artists of the 20th century. He abandoned a career in law to go to the Royal College of Art in 1927. During the 1930s he was one of the pioneers of abstract art in Britain as part of the Seven and Five Society with artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson.

In 1935, Piper moved to Fawley Bottom Farmhouse with Myfanwy Evans, and the couple married in 1937. Myfanwy set up a journal called AXIS that the couple produced from their new home. AXIS was devoted to furthering the cause of abstract art and included articles on Picasso, Calder, Brancusi, Miró, and Hélion, as well as the Seven and Five Society artists.

Alexander Calder visited Fawley Bottom Farmhouse in 1937 and performed his famous Circus for guests.
As war approached Piper began to reject abstraction. He famously wrote an article in 1938 called Abstraction on the Beach, which declared that ‘abstraction is a luxury’ and ‘undernourished’. He returned to the subjects that had first inspired him to become an artist architecture and landscapes. He worked particularly on these as part of the Recording Britain project, launched in 1939, to record in watercolour ‘views, places and sites likely to be spoiled or destroyed’ during the war.

Following the war, these themes continued to dominate Piper’s work. He also began to work more broadly across creative fields. He took up printmaking, seeing it as a way to make his work available to a broader audience and his collaborations can be seen to follow the same aim. He became friends with John Betjeman and worked with him on the Shell guides to Britain, and also worked with Benjamin Britten on set designs for a number of his operas and for venues such as Glyndebourne. He created ceramic pieces with Geoffrey Eastop and stained glass with Patrick Reyntiens, produced major public murals, including those at BBC Television Centre and for the Festival of Britain, and created designs for textiles and wallpaper.

Alongside all this, he also wrote a large number of essays and reviews for journals and newspapers exploring modern art, theatre and architecture in Britain.

John Piper was a creative force of nature. Help us tell his amazing story, show his extraordinary work and bring him home to Henley. Donate now to help us create the John Piper Gallery and receive a beautiful reward in return.

Back to top