John Piper

Sea buildings

Oil, pencil & ripolin on canvas laid on panel: 12(h) x 16(w) in /

30.5(h) x 40.6(w) cm

Signed, inscribed and dated 1938 on reverse

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BE 175



Epsom, Surrey 1903 – 1992 Fawley, Oxfordshire


Sea buildings


Signed, inscribed with the title and dated 1938 on the reverse

Oil, pencil and ripolin on canvas laid on panel:

12 x 16 in / 30.5 x 40.5 cm

Framed size: 19 ½ x 23 ½ in / 49.5 x 59.7 cm

In its original frame



Private collection, acquired directly from the artist, then by descent



Paddock Wood, Mascalls Gallery/Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery/Lamberhurst, Scotney Castle, 9th March-21st May 2011; Eastbourne, Towner, 2nd July-25th September 2011, John Piper in Kent and Sussex, exh. cat. by Nathaniel Hepburn, no.30, illus. in colour



Sea buildings was painted at a hinge moment in John Piper’s career.  It builds on just over three years experimentation with abstract art, yet at the same time hints at the return of representation.  The title, which he inscribed on the back of the painting, is provocative.  The abstract shapes in the foreground do not in any obvious way suggest buildings; but because of their association with the glimpse of sea or sky on the right hand side, they take on the kind of ‘coastal gaiety’ that Piper wrote about in his seminal article ‘Nautical Style’, published in January 1938 in the Architectural Review, and reprinted in his book Buildings and Prospects (1948).


Piper’s entry into abstract art had been through the making of reliefs, following the example of César Domela.  He had expressed a desire to break up and diversify the picture surface.  This he achieved in his abstract paintings by covering the plywood or wooden ground with canvas which he then cut into, removing segments to give variations in level and surface texture.  This habit recurs in Sea buildings where at one point the wood of the panel is exposed so that its natural colour can contribute to the composition as a whole.  The use of both oil paint and shiny ripolin paint made possible further alteration in the texture of the picture surface.


The abstract shapes are strongly reminiscent of cut-outs.  There may be a reference here to Piper’s involvement with printing.  In order to make possible inexpensive colour illustrations for his wife Myfanwy Piper’s magazine Axis, he had turned to Paramat blocks.  These were metal plates covered with rubber which he cut away, leaving a template to be printed.  This process seems to have fostered in him a fascination with the negatives, the arbitrary, unexpected shapes found among the remains, either when working with Paramat blocks or making collages in paper.


Sea buildings, like other abstracts of the 1937-38 period, plays with echoes and near repetitions, contrasting curves with straight lines and, with purposeful movement, sweeping all the parts into a whole.  By this date, Piper’s abstract language had achieved both fluency and sophistication, as can also be seen in the related work, Black ground (screen for the sea) 1938, in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.  Here, however, the sea is obscured, or vaguely hinted at by an indeterminate area of pale blue.  But in Sea buildings, the abstract forms are clustered against an atmospheric ground which suggests the movement of water, while also conveying the feeling that the outside world is trying to break in.


We are grateful to Frances Spalding for her assistance with the cataloguing of this work.



John Piper, Black Ground (Screen for the Sea), 1938

Oil on canvas: 121.6 x 182.8 cm

National Galleries of Scotland, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art





Epsom, Surrey 1903 – 1992 Fawley, Oxfordshire


John Egerton Christmas Piper was born at Epsom in 1903, the son of a solicitor.  Educated at Epsom College, Piper joined the family firm as an articled clerk until his father’s death in 1925.  In 1926, having abandoned the study of law, he attended Richmond School of Art, transferring to the Royal College of Art, South Kensington in 1927.  Though regarded foremost as a painter (elected a member of the Seven and Five Society in 1934), Piper was also a set designer for ballet and opera productions and for stained glass windows, as well as being an art and theatre critic.  He was also a masterful topographical draftsman with a passion for architecture, nurtured by his close personal and professional relationship with John Betjeman, with whom he collaborated on the Shell Guides to the British Isles. 


He was a valued member of the Royal Fine Art Commission for nineteen years, as well as a trustee of both the National and Tate Galleries.  Piper met and became close friends with Benjamin Britten through writing for the Architectural Review, and worked with him on several musical productions.  His first contact with the stage was in the 1930s with the Group Theatre Company.  In 1937 he divorced his first wife Eileen Holding and married Myfanwy Evans. 


Piper volunteered for the RAF in 1940, but was instead commissioned by the War Artist’s Advisory Committee and was appointed Official War Artist in 1944.


The work of John Egerton Christmas Piper is represented in Bolton Art Gallery, the National Museums and Galleries of Wales and Tate Britain, London.

Post War BritishJohn Piper