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John Piper, ‘Three Bathers Beside the Sea’

by Martina Gingell

The lovely ladies reclining in John Piper's 1934 painting 'Three Bathers Beside the Sea' are painted in a faux naif, seemingly primitive style, the bathers, boat and horizon being reduced to thick brushed lines. Their simplified outlines recall the string pictures of Jean Arp and the wire constructions of Alexander Calder, while the colours echo the rich brown colouring of Braque's Dieppe paintings of 1929. The collaged label from a tobacco packet suggests the sign on the seaside inn, bringing an element of exterior 'reality' to the image, in which topographical interest is subordinated within an almost abstract design.

In the 1930s John Piper (1903 - 1992), who was to become one of the most versatile artists of the 20th century, was a young man in a hurry. Although his father had done much to foster Piper's love of the arts, he had thought it prudent that he should follow him in a legal career. His father's death in 1926 released Piper from this obligation and at the age of 23 he went to Richmond College of Art and later to the Royal College of Art where he was taught by Henry Moore among other.

On leaving, Piper was very conscious that he was now five years behind his peers in the art world. In need of an income, he now began to write for The Nation and The Listener, reviewing the work of such artists as Hitchens, Pasmore, Richards and Coldstream. He also met the writer and critic Myfanwy Evans, who was later to become his wife.

Meanwhile, his own painting was developing and, in his search for a modern style, led to his making the series of works inspired by the sea, of which 'Three Bathers Beside the Sea' is such an important example. In these works, he was able to celebrate his love of the English marine landscape while working towards his next move which was to be into abstraction and membership of the newly energized 7+5 Society.