John Piper, a well-known British painter and author, was most famous for his watercolor paintings of the English landscape. A lover of English architecture, particularly churches, Piper was instrumental in promoting a romanticized English countryside in an attempt to establish a sense of national identity. It wasn’t until he was appointed official artist for his home country during World War II that Piper was able to truly make his mark.  In November 1940, the painter was sent to the city of Coventry to record the shell of its cathedral after an air raid left the city in ruins. The painting he created from this experience is one of his most famous, and served to establish him as the voice of the British wartime experience.

Although he was most well known as a painter of landscapes and distinctly British themes, Piper’s full and very varied career was not limited in terms of medium or subject matter. He experimented with abstraction, citing Georges Braque and Raoul Dufy as inspirations, and explored many different media and techniques.  Piper’s work in the applied arts began after the war, when he worked as a stage designer and gradually shifted to stained glass and other decorative forms, including photography, book and magazine covers, illustrations, advertisements, printed textiles, tapestry, and ceramics.

This printed textile is from 1955, and shows a grid of narrow rectangles, each one encasing an abstract, colorful design.  Piper’s design displays a painterly element in its combination of colors and forms, drawing upon his earlier work as an abstract painter and exposing the artist’s style as it runs across different media.

Emily Shapiro is a Masters student in the History of Decorative Arts and Design program at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum/Parsons New School for Design. She worked at the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies for two years after graduating from Brown University in 2009, and is pursuing research in 20th century fashion and interiors.

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