Five Piper facts


1. He was offered a CBE and he turned it down

Piper’s sold-out exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in December 1948 saw him lauded by critics as ‘an extraordinary master of technical effects’, and he subsequently became widely recognised as the leading watercolourist of the time.

In 1949, Piper was offered a CBE which he reluctantly refused. Writing to the Private Secretary, Piper said: 'I must refuse the honour… This refusal is not made out of disrespect to the Order which the Prime Minister proposes to recommend for me to His Majesty, nor out of any lack of recognition for the kindness that prompted it. My feeling is that my own development as a painter will be best helped by my remaining as independent as possible and by foregoing the too comforting sense of personal achievement that such an honour would confer.'

2. He didn’t like the Henley Regatta

Piper adored Henley-on-Thames and its quintessential Englishness. Having built his own studio at Fawley Bottom, he lived and breathed the natural beauty that was found in the surrounding countryside. The only Henley thing he did not much care for was the annual regatta – the crowds of spectators, the disruption to tranquillity and the arrival of what Myfanwy, Piper's wife, called ‘Leanderthal Man’ (Leander is a rowing club in Henley).

3. He lived in a house called Fawley Bum

In many ways, Piper could be summed up by the house in which he lived for more than 50 years. Fawley Bottom, or Fawley Bum as it was affectionately known, was hidden away by the woods close to the River Thames in Henley. His garden was abundant in sweet peas, white daisies, sunflowers, poppies, rudbeckias and ligularias, and every year perfumed nicotiana were planted to pick up the whites in the pale flint walls of the house.

The garden, large vegetable patch and surrounding meadows full of wild flowers served to inspire Piper, particularly in his later work. The immense kitchen at the heart of Piper’s family home formed a backdrop to Myfanwy’s expansive collection of china, with countless mugs suspended from hooks on the ceiling.

4. He was part of the Seven and Five Society

Piper didn’t join the society until 1935, which was a group of seven painters and five sculptors working collaboratively in Abstraction. The society was established in 1919 by a group of artists and sculptors who had become disenchanted with the London Group and its domination by the Bloomsbury artists. At its first exhibition, held in 1920, the society stated its aims as being: '... to group together men who do not attempt to achieve publicity by mere eccentricity of form or colour, but believe that to be sincere is not necessarily to be dull.'

Ben Nicholson joined the group in 1924 and his influence created a major shift in direction towards a more progressive approach. Elected chairman in 1926, he introduced a ruling restricting the work shown at the society's exhibitions to non-representational only. In 1935, the society renamed itself the Seven and Five Abstract Group and held the first and final all-abstract exhibition in Britain at the Zwemmer Gallery in London. It included paintings by Winifred Nicholson and John Piper. During the 15 years of its existence, membership and exhibitors included some of the most important names of the period, such as Barbara Hepworth, Frances Hodgkins, David Jones, Cecil Stephenson, Henry Moore and Edward Wolfe, and it proved to be a major influence on British art.

5. He designed a monumental wall mural for the BBC

This mural was commissioned by the BBC as part of the original design for the Television Centre, which was completed in 1960. John Piper chose deliberately abstract images for the mural and wanted it to become a cohesive part of the space. He said at the time of its inception: 'It does something physical towards uniting decoration and architecture; because it is, in itself, a building material part of a wall and one with the wall.'

His mural was part of the listed area of the Television Centre, and has been preserved as one of the main features of the re-developed building.

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