John Piper was born in 1903, bought up and educated at Epsom, then a quiet country town, and the third son of a solicitor, who commuted daily to his office in Westminster. Charles Piper sympathised with his youngest son’s interest in the English countryside and country churches, sketching and talking notes was a likeable hobby but unthinkable as a career. When the eldest was slain at Ypres in 1915 both parents were shattered and the father insisted the two surviving sons should follow in the safe profession of Law: Gordon complies but John obeyed unwillingly: after four years’ drudgery he failed miserably in his exams and his father suddenly died. John abandoned the law, went to art school, fell in love with a fellow student, Eileen Holding, and married her. Lean tears followed, as father predicated: John could not make a living as artist and took to reviewing books, plays, concerts and films. Meanwhile John and Eileen began to drift apart.
In 1934 a revolution took place. Ivon Hitchens, a fellow artist ten years his senior, invited John for a long weekend of painting at his seaside cottage near Aldeburgh, Suffolk, in company of Myfanwy Evans. London born of Welsh parents, she had read English at Oxford and was now a journalist and critic of abstract art. She was to become John’s second wife, soul mate, mother of their four children, and famous in her own right as librettist for three of Benjamin Britten’s operas. Next they worked together on “Axis”, a magazine of abstract art and discovered Fawley Bottom Farmhouse and outbuildings, then derelict and without any modern conviences in a remote beechwood valley in the Chilterns but near Henley –on – Thames, so easily accessible to London. This was to be their headquarters, where their children grew up and as an obituary in “The Times” tartly observed, “ they made their homes for the rest of there sternly creative but warmly hospitable lives”.
Normally immune to passing fashions, John had fallen for the abstract and started his own career as an abstract artist, which may surprise many who know of him mainly as a topographical painter. Later he declared, “I never had any intention of remaining an abstract artist”, yet he never entirely abandoned the abstract style.
In 1936 John Piper started a long association with the “ Architectural Review” and made friends with the assistant editor, John Betjeman with whom who worked on a new project, Shell Guidebooks. Then Betjeman had another brainwave: he persuaded Piper to learn the complicated process of making aquatints and so “Brighton Aquatints” twelve in all, each with a caption by the artist, that wittily illustrated different aspects of the town, was published for Christmas 1939 and did more than anything else to put Piper on the map. My Uncle Osbert Sitwell wrote a rave review in the now defunct BBC weekly magazine “ The Listener” and, at an exhibition held shortly afterwards, bought a little drawing of Brunswick Square, Brighton, the first of seventy or so paintings by Piper that he was to collect.
Early in the War Kenneth Clark, art historian, later famous as “Lord Clark of Civilisation” was responsible for setting up the War Artists Scheme and Piper was promptly released from the R.A.F. to paint instant bomb damage and also to record buildings that might in time be blitzed. Some of Piper’s greatest works resulted: the ruins of Coventry Cathedral the “morning after” on 15th November 1940 and amongst potential targets, Windsor Castle. For Kenneth Clark, as surveyor of the Kings Pictures, obtained a commission for Piper to paint twelve of Windsor and the Queen (now Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother) was so delighted that she commissioned Piper to paint a further twelve.
In the same year 1942 as painting Windsor and starting here at Renishaw, Piper produced his first work for the theatre, a stage cloth for the revival of “Facade”, “the entertainment” of poems by my aunt Edith, set to music by William Walton. Many other works for the stage followed.
In later years Piper visited and revisited many of his “Favourite Places” such as Romney Marsh, the Isle of Portland and above all Snowdonia, as well as other parts of middle and south Wales, Cornwall and other areas in the “Celtic Fridge, Painting countless country houses, cathedrals, churches, chapels and humble ruined cottages, and included amongst his travels many working trips to France and Italy.
Besides stage settings and costumes his versality encompassed designs for stained glass, mosaics, tapestries and pottery, even curtains and chair covers; he was also a talented photographer, poet and pianist.