Just a Way of Having Fun

Eleanor Birne

At the start of the war, John Piper – who had made his name as an avatar of high abstraction in the mode of Braque and Mondrian, his paintings hanging among the Giacomettis and Calders in the seminal 1936 show Abstract and Concrete – was struggling to get by. His pictures weren’t really selling, and he was living on the £3 10s a week he still got from his mother. He was 35. Eager for extra income, he took over from Anthony Blunt as the art critic at the Spectator. And he also took on work for the Ministry of Information. His first commission was to paint pictures of the control rooms for the ARP, the air raid precaution service. Where some of the older war artists working on the home front produced suitably boosterish images of British resilience – Paul Nash with his flying boats in Defence of Albion, Duncan Grant with his lush pictures of blooming countryside – Piper wasn’t afraid of a little darkness. In the ARP regional control centre in Bristol he found modernist typography stencilled on the walls, moodily lit corridors, ducts, arrows and piping. He loved it all. His paintings from the scene look like stage sets for a nightmarish play about faceless government bureaucracy.

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