Born in Epsom, Surrey, in 1903, Piper painted and drew from a young age, studying initially at Epsom College from 1919-22. He wrote and illustrated his own book of poems, which was published in 1924. Familial pressures forced him into a legal career, but he abandoned this after three years in order to study at Richmond School of Art. From here, he went to the Royal College of Art in 1928, where stayed until 1929, disaffected by the College. Whilst attending the College, he met Eileen Holding, whom he married in 1929. They had a joint exhibition together at Heal’s, in 1931.
From 1928 to 1933 he was an art critic for the Nation and the Listener, and was an early champion of artists such as Victor Pasmore, Ceri Richards, William Coldstream, and Ivor Hitchens. His writing work led to inclusion in the Seven and Five Society (alongside others such as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth), through a review of Edward Wadsworth’s work. It was in the 1930s that he made the switch from being solely a landscape artist, to abstraction and a form of constructivism. However, having experimented with these new ideas, he made a conscious return to figuration.
The mid 1930s saw another change for Piper, this time personal—he met Myfanwy Evans in 1934, with whom he moved to the Chilterns, Holding having also left him for another artist. His work at this time was varied, and he became a broadcaster for the BBC, as well as drawing series of chapels, churches, and romantic ruins. He also joined John Betjeman in work on the Shell Guides of Britain. He married Evans in 1935, and begun helping her with the publication of Axis, highly significant for contemporary artists. He also started work on Architectural Review, to which he also contributed illustrations.
After the outbreak of war, Piper was persuaded by Kenneth Clark into taking up a commission by the War Artists Advisory Committee to depict the utter destruction of the country during the Blitz, even in rural areas. In 1944 he was appointed an official war artist.
The end of the war brought more diversity in Piper’s work—he begun to work with Patrick Reyntiens in stained glass, which resulted in commissions for Oundle School (1954-6) and the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral (1958). He also worked on tapestries, set designs, paintings, drawings, fabric design, posters, lithographs, and many other diverse projects.
In 1992, Piper died at Fawley Bottom, Buckinghamshire, after suffering from Alzheimer’s for some time. The variety and proliferation of his work, both artistic and literary, has ensured that Piper has remained popular ever since, his pieces re-exhibited long after his death. His pieces, depicting frequently stormy or dark landscapes and forms, nevertheless glow with vivid colour, the lines of his paintings, prints and drawings invested with movement and light. The architectural quality of his line is offset by the gestural nature of his colour, skies and vegetation pulling and heaving around his linear structures.