John Piper 1903 - 1992


Leicester Galleries, London
Private collection, USA


Although Piper had begun to work with architectural subjects in the later 1930’s after his brief but important foray into abstraction, it was WW II which was to provide the opportunity which forged a style that has become one of the best-known of any British artist of the twentieth century, perhaps because in its odd juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, we recognise a theme that has persisted throughout British art across the centuries.
The darkest years of the War saw a high level of isolationist introspection amongst artists and the identification of the architectural heritage, the tangible evidence of the past, with the nationalism of the Churchillian call to arms was almost inevitable. The Recording Britain project, supported by the American Pilgrim Trust, ran parallel to the official War Artists scheme, and many of those involved produced work for both. However, it was Piper who was to become the artist with whom the modernist image of its complete antithesis and symbol of the past orders, the country house, was most closely identified. Drawing on the precedents of the Romantic movement and his own knowledge and enthusiasm for British architecture, Piper was able to pull off the enormously difficult task of combining these images of the past with a technique which used a variety of media, including collage, to create a manner which is distinctly his own.
The present painting takes the Palladian gatehouse of a country seat and simplifies it to a level where only its basic elements remain, the columns applied to the picture surface with cut paper. This is then set in a crepuscular glowing darkness out of which the merest hints of trees, hedges and park railing advance. The result perfectly captures the sense of continuity within the ever-changing cycle of nature that is, in many ways, the raison d’etre of the country house.