David Towry Piper was born on 21 July 1918 in Wimbledon, Surrey, the second of three sons of Stephen Harvey Piper, later professor of physics at The University of Bristol, and his wife Mary Joyce Caswell.
He was educated at Clifton College, and St Catharine's College Cambridge where he graduated with a first in the modern and medieval languages tripos in 1940. He then joined the Indian army. He was captured in the Malay peninsula in 1942 and spent three years as a prisoner of war in Formosa (Taiwan). In 1945 he married Anne Horatia, daughter of Oliffe Leigh Richmond. They had three daughters and a son.
After the Second World War Piper moved into the museum world. He was given his first job as assistant keeper in the National Portrait Gallery in 1946, when G.M. Young, then a trustee said 'We must keep an eye on that young man; he will go far!' They were prescient words. He became the Gallery's Director in 1964, a post he held until 1967.
Piper's twenty one years at the Gallery were marked by the publication of a pioneering volume in the Gallery's series of catalogues, 'Seventeenth-Century Portraits' (1963) and by the initiation of the 'Concise Catalogue'. The years were also remarkable for a number of exhibitions: Oliver Cromwell, 4 Sep-31 Oct 1958; O Sweet Mr Shakespeare I'll have his picture, 18 Apr-14 Jun 1964 ; and The Winter Queen: Elizabeth Queen of Bohemia and Her Family, 22 Nov 1963-2 Feb 1964. Notable acquisitions made under Piper's Directorship included John Milton (Primary Collection portrait: NPG 4222) and Edmond Halley (Primary Collection portrait: NPG 4393) bought for £45 and £25 respectively.
As a result, and because of his numerous broadcasts, lectures, and articles, attendance figures rose to pass the quarter million mark and the Gallery became one of the attractions of London. Piper also found time to write two outstanding books: 'The English Face' and 'The Companion Guide to London'.
Piper left the National Portrait Gallery to become Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, and fellow of Christ's Cambridge (1967-1973). In 1973 he became the first Director of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, retiring in 1985. He was a member of the Royal Fine Arts Commission (1970–86) and trustee of the Watts Gallery (1966–88), and served on the Paul Mellon Foundation for British Art (1969–70), the Pilgrim Trust (1973–90), and the Leeds Castle Foundation (1981–8).
Piper was a prolific writer. His articles in the 'Financial Times' and elsewhere drew attention to current exhibitions books and affairs in the art world. He also wrote several novels undet the name Peter Towry. He was appointed CBE in 1969, knighted in 1983 and made an honorary DLitt of Bristol University in 1984 and an honorary fellow of the Royal Academy in 1985. Piper died at his home, Overford Farm, Wytham near Oxford on 29 December 1990.
Please note this description is based on R.J.B. Walker, 'Piper, Sir David Towry (1918-1990)', rev. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2007 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/39819, accessed 1 Dec 2009]