Redland Park Congregational Church, John Piper (1940)
John Piper was already an artist of some standing by the start of the Second World War, made through his association with the group of avant-garde artists experimenting with abstraction in the 1930s. However, his lifelong interest in architecture found new direction through the commissions he undertook on behalf of the War Artists Advisory Committee and established his reputation as the painter of Britain’s architectural heritage.
At the end of 1940, Piper was commissioned to record bombed churches, initially in Coventry, where the Cathedral had been destroyed in the air raids, and later in Bristol, Bath and London. Of these works, the poet John
Betjeman wrote “When the bombs fell, when the city churches crashed, when the classic and Perpendicular glory of England was burnt and stark, he produced a series of oil paintings, using his theory of colour to keep the drama of a newly fallen bomb alive”.
Through his dramatic use of rich hues and intense black lines, Piper translates the unexpected and terrifying beauty of bomb-wrecked ruins. Harkening back to British Romanticism, Neo-Romantic artists of this period, including Piper, celebrated the pastoral past, which was in danger of becoming extinct in an age of industrialised war and modernisation.
Piper’s ability to seize on the essential architectural character of a building and to dramatize its destruction through the use of colour and simple shapes made him, in Kenneth Clark’s words, “the ideal recorder of bomb damage”.