The Piper Gallery
** Please Note: the Piper Gallery will be closed between the 27th Nov and 7th December for essential maintenance works. **
John Piper was one of the most significant British artists of the 20th century. From his home and studio at Fawley Bottom, on the edge of Henley on Thames, he produced work that crossed creative boundaries.
Piper refused to be defined by a style or artistic movement and constantly experimented, collaborated and explored new ways of working. He has become known as a Neo-Romantic artist but was also one of Britain’s leading abstract painters and a dedicated modernist.
Our gallery explores Piper’s life and career, including paintings, theatre designs, ceramics, travel guides, textiles, prints, illustration, art and architectural criticism, and stained glass. Some displays are permanent and others change regularly to reflect the extraordinary range of Piper’s work.
Explore highlights from the collection and discover more about Piper and his many talents in the highlights below, clicking each image for more information.
Image: John Piper in his studio at Fawley Bottom, cutting the design for the stained glass window commissioned for Arthur Sanderson and Sons Ltd., 1959. Photo: Elsbeth Juda. With kind permission of Siobhan Davies. © The Piper Estate/DACS 2021
HighlightsClick images for more information
John Egerton Christmas Piper (1903 – 1992) was born in Epsom on 13 December 1903. From an early age he was fascinated by British history and architecture. On leaving school, Piper tried to persuade his father to allow him to study art. Instead his father convinced him to enter the family firm and train to become a solicitor.
His father died unexpectedly in 1927 and Piper immediately left his job and abandoned law. His mother chose to support him and after a year studying at Richmond School of Art, he was accepted at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington (1928–9), beginning his long and lustrous career as a multi-talented artist.
Image: Colourful close-up of the Farnborough cartoon for All Saints Church, West Berkshire, by John Piper. Gloss paper and painted collage elements on gouache background. © The Piper Estate / DACS 2021
In February 1935 Piper moved to Fawley Bottom Farmhouse, on the edge of Henley on Thames, with Myfanwy Evans. The couple married in 1938 and it was at Fawley Bottom that they lived, worked, raised their 4 children, and entertained friends and collaborators.
Piper spent the rest of his working life living here and produced work that reflected his location, from paintings of the surroundings, to set designs and costumes for the Kenton Theatre in Henley.
The image shows a stained glass window by Piper over a doorway in St Mary’s Church, Turville – a village close to Henley.
In 1935 John Piper and his future wife, Myfanwy Evans, founded the avant-garde modern art review ‘Axis’. Myfanwy had been prompted to do so by the leading French modernist artist, Jean Hélion, during a trip to Paris in 1934.
‘Axis’ ran to eight editions, ending in 1937 having covered reviews of Modern and Abstract art by a range of artists with contributors who were well known in the art scene.
The movement in arts and literature that is characterised by a deliberate rejection of the styles of the past; emphasising instead innovation and experimentation in forms, materials and techniques.
After leaving the Royal College of Art in 1930 Piper began earning money through journalism, including arts and literature reviews. Influenced by European modernism, in particular the work of Georges Braque, he started working on a series of paintings and collages inspired by the British coast.
He began to produce purely abstract paintings, experimenting with the arrangement of shapes and colours. The 1936 exhibition ‘Abstract and Concrete’, the first international display of abstract art in England, included five of Piper’s works.
By 1937 Piper had begun to question the restrictions of the abstract movement. The influence of this period remained visible in his later work and he stayed committed to modernism throughout his life.
Piper had a great interest in experimenting with new methods and different media, often pushing the limits of accepted practice. He particularly enjoyed working with experienced craftsmen who would translate his designs into a new medium and sought creative partnerships where the inspiration could flow both ways. He called this method ‘delegated arts’.
With this approach Piper worked on theatre set and costume designs, stained glass, textiles, prints, ceramics, murals, and fireworks. Collaborating not only enabled him to produce work in mediums that would take him years to master alone, but also created a way to ‘democratise’ his work. Along with his books, folios and illustrations, working in these mediums enabled Piper to reach a much wider audience.
This included a lot of work for the Kenton Theatre in New Street, Henley. Piper held the lease on the historic Kenton Theatre with Dr Alan Hartley between 1951 and 1952.
With Myfanwy and their friends they restored the theatre. Piper created a new proscenium arch and hand painted sets for many of the productions.
After moving away from pure abstraction, Piper began to adopt a more picturesque style of painting. He joined other artists such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, who were also producing works that were an emotional response to British landscape and history.
Before the war Piper had begun to work with the Architectural Review and developed a friendship with John Betjeman, which led to them working together on the Shell Guides to Britain. By the end of the war Piper had developed a strong, unique style that brought together his passion for traditional romantic and picturesque art with his continued dedication to modernism. He produced paintings inspired by his travels in England, Wales, France and Italy.
From the mid-1960s onwards, Piper began producing the work he is perhaps best known for. Largely focussed on British landscapes and architecture, these paintings draw on both his previous explorations with painting styles and techniques, and his work in stained glass and theatre design. They brought him back to what he loved most:
‘Pictures of places rather than things’.
People think it dishonest to be chameleon-like in one’s artistic allegiances. On the other hand, I think it dishonest to be anything else. Not only must one change one’s spots or stripes or other outward markings according to the influences one truly experiences, within oneself, but surely one’s whole nature, aesthetic-sensually, as it were, should be susceptible to change.
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