Papers of John and Myfanwy Piper

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The personal archives of John Piper and of his wife Myfanwy Piper. The papers consist of personal and business correspondence; subject files on commissions, people and events; draft writings by both the Pipers; notebooks and sketchbooks; original sketches and prints together with reproductions of works and design commissions; photographs; appointment diaries; personal, artistic and literary papers; and a range of printed material and press cuttings.

Administrative / Biographical History

John Piper was a major figure in modern British art. He was a painter in oils and water colour, designed stained glass, ceramics and for the stage, made prints and devised ingenious firework displays. In addition to this he was also a gifted photographer of buildings and landscapes. Piper also wrote poetry, art criticism and several guidebooks on landscape and architecture.

Piper was born at Epsom, Surrey on 13 December 1903 and educated at Epsom College. He joined his father's law firm as an articled clerk in 1921 and loyally stayed there until his father died in 1926. He then gave up law and entered the Richmond School of Art (1926-7), later moving to the Royal College of Art (1927-1929) where he studied engraving, painting, drawing, lithography and stained glass and also developed his interests in music, ballet and theatre. In 1929 he married Eileen Holding a fellow student at Richmond College of Art.

In the early 1930s Piper, influenced by the work of Picasso and Braque, produced some dramatic abstract works. He was involved in the avant-garde developments in British Art, showing paintings at the exhibitions of the London Group from 1931 and in 1934 he was elected a member of the 7&5 Society. He was soon appointed secretary of the group whose membership included Ben Nicholson, Ivon Hitchens and Henry Moore. In the late 1930s he moved away from this abstract phase and looked for new ways to record the landscape and architecture of England which he loved. He created a romantic idiosyncratic style which combined rich colour, sharp lines and varied textures. Piper also went on to develop his photography and use collage and printmaking.

Piper began writing reviews from the late 1920s making a name for himself as a critic writing for periodicals like 'The Listener' and the 'Architectural Review'. From 1935-1937 he assisted Myfanwy Evans, with the production of a quarterly review of contemporary European abstract painting called 'Axis'. In 1937 Piper was commissioned by his friend John Betjeman to write the 'Shell Guide to Oxfordshire'. Piper went on to write and provide photographs for a number of the guides as well as edit the series. In the same year John Piper married the writer Myfanwy Evans. Together they had two sons and two daughters and lived at Fawley Bottom Farmhouse.

He also designed stage sets and costumes, starting with the play 'Trial of a Judge' by Stephen Spender at the Unity Theatre in 1938 and thereafter designing for many theatre, ballet and opera productions. Designing for opera led to his friendship with Benjamin Britten with whom, in 1946, Piper founded the English Opera Group which became the mainstay of the Aldeburgh Festival. He designed Britten's last opera 'Death in Venice' (1973) and Myfanwy Piper wrote the librettos for three of Britten's operas.

Although not created an Official War Artist until 1944, Piper recorded the effects of bomb-damage to buildings in works such as 'St Mary le Port, Bristol' 1940 now in the Tate Collection (N05718) and he also drew Windsor Castle. In the 1950s he was given his first commission to design stained glass windows for Oundle School Chapel. This was followed by many other commissions including the blaze of colour he designed for the great Baptistery window of the new Coventry Cathedral and the windows for the Metropolitan Cathedral of Liverpool. From the 1960s he exhibited at the Marlborough Gallery a series of landscape paintings of Britain, France and Italy. Throughout his life Piper collaborated with other artists, designers and publishers in a mass of popular art on both a large and small scale. He planned decorative panels for buildings and in his sixties took up ceramics.

Piper was also a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission for a long period, served on the Arts Council and as a Trustee of the Tate Gallery for three terms and at the National Gallery for two. He was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1972. John Piper died in 1992.

Arrangement

The archive has been arranged into the following series:

TGA 200410/1 Correspondence

TGA 200410/2 Subject Files

TGA 200410/3 Writings

TGA 200410/4 Notebooks and Sketchbooks

TGA 200410/5 Artworks

TGA 200410/6 Photographs

TGA 200410/7 Diaries

TGA 200410/8 Artistic and Literary Papers

TGA 200410/9 Personal and Domestic Papers

TGA 200410/10 Printed Ephemera

TGA 200410/11 Press Cuttings

Conditions Governing Access

Open. Access to all registered researchers

Family Names