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.

‘Coventry Cathedral’ (1940)
‘Coventry Cathedral’ (1940)

On 14 November 1940, Coventry Cathedral was bombed. Piper was dispatched to record the damage. When he arrived the next morning, the sight of the ruined cathedral, the still blazing fires and the stench of burning, the sight of the ARP officials recovering bodies from the rubble, were all too much for him. He stumbled about, not wanting to get his sketchbook out in the middle of such destruction. Then he came across a row of undamaged houses next to the cathedral, one of which displayed the brass nameplate of a solicitor’s office. It was the sort of place that was immediately familiar to him, and comforting: his father had been a solicitor, proprietor of the family firm, as he too might now be if he hadn’t spent all his time drawing when he was supposed to be clerking. He went in, made his way upstairs, ‘and there was a girl tapping away at a typewriter,’ he remembered later, ‘in a seat by an open window, as if nothing had happened. I said: “Good morning. It’s a beastly time isn’t it?”’ She let him borrow her desk, and he sketched the cathedral’s ruined east façade. Then he went down into the nave and sketched and photographed the view from inside the roofless walls. The painting he worked up ten days later – the tall bands of primary colour in sunlight and shade, red and screaming yellow, the scratched-out sky – was quickly turned into a postcard by the ministry, and it served as one of the more lasting symbols of damage done by the Blitz. ‘John Piper makes us more directly aware of a great architectural tradition burning up,’ Stephen Spender said. Piper – always, temperamentally, happy to comply – went on tour around the country to document burned-out churches as well as picturesque buildings deemed to be under threat, including Windsor Castle, producing a series of dark watercolours with glowering skies. ‘You seem to have had very bad luck with your weather, Mr Piper,’ the king is said to have commented when he saw them.

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