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John Piper CH British, 1903-1992

John Piper (1903–1992) was an important and distinctive figure in modern British art in a long career that spanned seven decades, from the 1920s through to the 1980s. Throughout this time he was constantly evolving and changing and refining the nature of his style, and the trajectory he followed was a singular and interesting one. Piper started as an artist of pure landscape, but in the early 1930s he switched to become wholly abstract, creating constructivist pieces that were among the most advanced objects produced in Britain at that date. He was a supporter of Ben Nicholson, and was Secretary of the Seven and Five Society which pioneered abstraction in Britain. Piper gained first hand knowledge of the European avant-garde by visiting the studios of Hans Arp, Jean Hélion, César Domelar and Constantin Brancusi in Paris in 1935, and Alexander Calder became a friend. Picasso too was a constant source of inspiration and reference, and Piper kept up a book of cuttings of his art and made copies based on works he had encountered. 

 

In January 1934, Piper joined the 7&5 Society and two months later, Ben Nicholson made him the group’s secretary.  Included in the group were Henry Moore, Ivon Hitchens, Frances Hodgkins, Barbara Hepworth, and Winifred Nicholson, placing Piper at the heart of the English modern movement of painting.

 

But by the end of the 1930s Piper turned again towards figuration, albeit synthesising elements of abstraction, such as the strength of solid form and the compelling visual quality of scumbled and incised paint, accompanied by collaged components. The subject of his art revolved around the familiar topics of topography and architecture, but treated in a manner that harmonised familiar motifs with and a highly innovative and original expression that derived from the avant-garde. This approach was applied dramatically to the bombed churches and cities of the Blitz, themselves emblems of the destructive, exterminating potential of the modern world.