Colours of hope

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
John Piper's dramatic pictures of bombed-out churches are a testimony to British defiance and faith during the darkest hours of the Second World War, says James Sharp

John Piper 1903-1992

Born in Epsom, Surrey, the son of a solicitor, John Piper studied art at Richmond and Kingston Schools of Art in 1928. As well as becoming a leading artist of his generation, he wrote art criticism, edited a series of architectural guides to Britain and produced stage designs for his friend Benjamin Britten.

John Piper's painting of the blitzed church St Mary-Le-Port, Bristol, with its bold colouring and simplified forms, is typical of his work as a war artist. His unrealistic use of colours, like blue, crimson, orange and ochre, set against dramatic blacks and greys, the exposed internal structure of the church and the piles of rubble, serves only to emphasise the sense of damage and destruction.

The Germans had raided Bristol on November 24, 1940. Piper visited the city the very next day and, according to a letter written by the artist to the Tate Gallery in 1958, "The ruins of one or two churches were still smoking". Although it was the docks that had been the target of the German bombers, it was the collateral damage to churches that moved Piper, a devout Christian, the most.

He stayed only three hours, but in that time made several sketches and took a number of photographs. The subsequent painting, worked on in his studio during early December, was delivered to the War Artists' Advisory Committee (WAAC) by January 7, 1941. The painting shows the exposed interior of the church from the east end of the building. The jagged and half-destroyed north wall is on the right. The artist has lightly sketched in its windows and a pile of ochre-coloured rubble lies below it.

The depiction of the church tower with its deep shadows and pale light shining through the arched window was important to Piper and, as a motif, often featured in his paintings of blitzed churches as a symbol of defiance. This is reinforced by the inclusion of the spire of the nearby St Nicholas's church which can be seen against the black sky at the left side of the work.

A close inspection of the surface of the painting reveals a variety of textures and mark-making. The canvas has been glued to a plywood panel before being covered with a chalk ground. In places, the artist has created texture by putting the oil paint on in thick lumps while elsewhere the paint has been applied in very thin washes. Piper has also scratched into the surface of the work, perhaps with a pencil or palette knife.

John Piper was 35 when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. At that time he was regarded as one of the leading artists of the avant garde. His paintings of the unusual and even exotic buildings of Britain, such as the country house Hafod, Cardiganshire, combined his interest in architecture with the language and ideas of abstraction. His particular interest in portraying decayed buildings made him an obvious choice for war artist and it was in November 1940 that the chairman of the WAAC, Sir Kenneth Clarke, first commissioned him to record the bomb damage and destruction of British cities.

Although his paintings resemble portraits which seek to portray the likeness of the sitter by over-emphasising a few key characteristics rather than producing a photographic record, their contribution to the war effort should not be overlooked. This painting was made at a time when Britain stood alone in Europe, isolated and demoralised in the wake of the German onslaught. Piper's portrayal of the destruction of key monuments such as St Mary-Le-Port was an attempt to defy the loss of faith and sense of community and tradition.

For art and design teachers, Piper's work could be studied as part of the key stage 3 7B unit of work, "What's in a building?", or as part of a general look at the role and nature of war art, in particular how it was used for propaganda purposes, which might also fit into unit 9A, "Life Events". One painting he made of the destruction of Coventry Cathedral was used as a postcard by the Ministry of Information; for a while it became an important symbol of national resistance to Hitler's Germany. In class, you could investigate the way in which Piper's art uses light and strong colour to install a sense of hope and maybe even spirituality in the viewer.

Piper was not the only artist commissioned to make paintings of the "Home Front". The sculptor Frank Dobson, who was living in Bristol at the time of the raids, recorded the bomb damage in a series of sketches later bought by the WAAC. Graham Sutherland was also employed to record the destruction of British cities. His work makes an interesting comparison to Piper's, drawing on the ideas of Surrealism and with a more sinister edge.

Sutherland, along with Henry Moore, who was commissioned to record life in the underground bomb shelters of London, was uncomfortable making sketches of destroyed homes and lives. He preferred to take photographs and develop his work back in his studio, while Moore worked almost entirely from memory. By focusing on public buildings rather than homes, Piper's work avoided this dilemma; while some war art was criticised for ignoring the plight and suffering of the working classes, Piper's patriotism and sense of defiance shines through his painting.

* You can read more about John Piper in John Piper: The Forties by David Fraser Jenkins (published by Philip Wilson) and Holbein to Hockney - A History of British Art by Simon Wilson (published by The Bodley Head).

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James Sharp teaches art at Elmhurst School, London Borough of Newham

Lesson ideas

Art and design


As part of unit 2C, "Can buildings speak?", younger pupils could visit local churches and other important buildings to make rubbings and prints of patterns and shapes. Back in the classroom, make press prints using polystyrene tiles or construct simple relief sculptures using layers of card. Texture and surface detail can be added by incorporating patterned wallpaper and corrugated card.


As part of unit 6C "A sense of place", pupils could begin by making sketches and taking photographs of local buildings of interest. Back in the classroom they can use colour, shape and texture in a 2D piece of work. The pupils could explore the style and approach of John Piper by using a mixture of paint and collage. Washes of coloured ink could replicate Piper's bold use of colour.


Photographs of local buildings could be scanned into the computer and a program such as Photoshop used to manipulate the images and possibly re-interpret them as war-damaged buildings. John Piper produced many screenprints; once again, by using photographicimages transferred to silk screens, pupils could explore this way of working. By focusing on buildings or places, ask the pupils to consider important issues of sense of place and belonging.


Alongside artists such as Henry Moore, John Nash, Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon, John Piper was a dominant figure in a phase of British art known as Neo-Romanticism. Older students could investigate the contribution he made to the movement and its influence on subsequent generations of painters such as Lucian Freud.

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