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Tate Liverpool celebrates the work of John Piper

November 16, 2017

You may not immediately recognise the name – but as a Liverpudlian you pass one of his greatest, and certainly largest, artworks on a regular basis.

John Piper, who died 25 years ago in 1992, was one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century. And the man behind the stunning jewel-coloured stained glass that graces the Metropolitan Cathedral.

But Piper was also what you could call an artistic polyglot, working in many different ‘languages’ including paint, printmaking, collage, opera and theatre sets, film posters, guide books, tapestries, carvings and even fireworks (he designed the display for the Queen's Silver Jubilee) in a career that spanned 50 years.

Now Piper is the subject of a new autumn exhibition at Tate Liverpool, which runs in parallel with a show entitled Surrealism in Egypt: Art et Liberté.

There was a major retrospective of Piper’s work at Tate Britain in the 1980s, but here curators Darren Pih and Tamar Hemmes have concentrated on the artist’s output from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Above: St Mary's le Port, Bristol 1940

Top: Harbour Scene, Newhaven 1936-37. The Piper Estate/DACS 2017. Courtesy private collection.

 

Darren says: “Piper is remembered as a landscape artist and painter, but his practise was very broad. The extraordinary diversity of it can’t be encompassed in a single show.”

The two decades that encompassed pre-war, war years and post-war Britain saw Piper inspired to document the British landscape and its architectural heritage, but look to the Avant Garde movement over the Channel in Europe as a way to do it.

“He wanted to understand British identity as expressed through architecture and landscape,” Darren explains, describing Piper as a ‘paradox’ who was an antiquarian working in the modern world.

The exhibition takes a chronological look at his work, charting the progression of his distinctive style through paintings, collages and reliefs, and reflecting his role, along with that of his second wife Myfanwy Evans, as the foremost champion of international abstract art in Britain.

At the outbreak of the Second World War he was signed up by Sir Kenneth Clark as part of his Recording Britain project to document the nation’s historic buildings and landscape at risk from destruction. Piper later became a war artist, visiting Coventry Cathedral the day after it was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1940.

Coming full circle, 20 years later Piper was asked to design a stained glass window for the new cathedral.

John Piper runs at Tate Liverpool until March 18 and the £10/£8 ticket price also covers entry to the Egyptian Surrealism exhibition.

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