Documenting war torn Britain, John Piper is one of Britain’s most loved artists. His painting Interior of Coventry Cathedral, has even been described as Britain’s Guernica.
John Piper was thirty-five when Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939. A person’s age at such a time had a critical effect on what was to happen to them during the next five years, and for an artist the precise nature of his or her career. For John Piper it happened that he was at the right point in his life to match the emotional burden of his painting to the requirements of being an official war artist, commissioned to make pictures of bombed historic buildings.
In 1939 Piper was already old enough to have earned a reputation as a leading artist of the avant-garde in London, and was an ideal artist to choose to make pictures of the destruction of British cities during the war. For what he produced was a record not so much of what Coventry Cathedral and the rest of bombed Britain really looked like, which was already much published in photographs, but of how a certain kind of British person felt about these newly made ruins at a time when Britain was isolated from the rest of Europe. His paintings are modest in size and in drama, they are rarely melodramatic, and now look conservative; but at the time their style was regarded as uncomfortably modern and distorted.
Here, compiled from our new book John Piper: The Forties, is a gallery of works that were commissioned in Piper’s time as an official war artist. Simply click a thumbnail to begin.
But before we proceed, it has to be said, is there a painting with a more banal name than ’Land Reclamation at Swaffham’? If so, the comments section beckons and welcomes you.
John Piper: The Forties is out now, and includes over 100 colour and 20 mono illustrations. A sample from the book is available to view online.