A Very British Artist: River and Rowing opens new permanent John Piper Gallery

By Richard Moss | 14 December 2016

Artist John Piper gets a dedicated gallery in his hometown of Henley-on-Thames

a photo of a large abstract wall painting
The John Piper Gallery at the River and Rowing Museum, Henley on Thames© Ian Macdonald Photography
The title of the River and Rowing Museum’s new John Piper gallery may cast him as a “Very British Artist”, but as the curator of the new permanent exhibition points out, Piper was an artist “who refused to be defined by a single style, movement or medium”.

“Instead he followed his own creative path, and constantly explored new ways of working” adds Eloise Chapman, the Museum’s Head of Collections & Exhibitions. “It is truly exciting to be opening a permanent gallery that will allow us to show the extraordinary diversity of this work.”

Painter and printmaker John Piper (1903 - 1992) enjoyed a long career that took in tapestry designs, books, photography, theatre scenery, ceramics, stained glass, fabrics and a fruitful period as an Official War Artist during World War Two.

The new gallery celebrating this rare talent opens today (December 14) in the artist’s home town of nigh on 60 years, and underscores the breadth of his career - from Modernist abstraction to Neo Romanticism via distinctive landscape paintings and early abstracts to theatre designs, pottery, glass and his writings.

an abstract painting and collage of a beach with a lighthouse in the distance
John Piper, Brittany Beach with Lighthouse Collage (1961)© Photo Ian Macdonald Photography
a photo of a fabric artwork with flowers on it.
John Piper, Beauty and the Beast (KentonTheatre), 1961. © Photo Ian Macdonald Photography
a photo of an article inside a magazine with a large abstract of a John Piper painting
Inside Axis 4, a spread about John Piper.© Ian Macdonald Photography
Previously unseen works from private collections have been secured for the new gallery, as well as loans from the V&A, Tate and the Arts Council together with pieces personally donated by the John Piper family.

Highlights of the exhibition include Brittany Beach with Lighthouse (1961), an abstract collage on loan from a private collector and on display to the public for the first time; Sketch (1933) - an early example of Piper’s experimentation with abstraction, and the set model for Benjamin Britten’s 1947 production of ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ on loan from the V&A.

The museum has mounted several successful Piper exhibitions over the years and the opening of the gallery marks the beginning of a new chapter of temporary art exhibitions  exploring the work of “other great 20th Century artists”.

“Conversations are already underway with major collectors, galleries and museums,” says the museum’s director Ludo Keston, “and we hope to present exhibitions devoted to great contemporaries of John Piper including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicolson and Lucien Freud.

"This is a truly exciting moment for the Museum and for the communities of Henley who have supported the development of our new gallery.”

a gallery photo showing stained glass and stained glass designs
© Ian Macdonald Photography
a photo of a gallery interior with panels, paintings and cases
Inside the Piper Gallery© Ian Macdonald Photography
a photo of a display case with magazines and other ephemera inside it
© Ian Macdonald Photography
a photo of a glass display case inside a gallery
© Ian Macdonald Photography
Earlier this year, the Museum ran a successful crowdfunding campaign through the Art Fund’s digital platform Art Happens, to raise the required money. Art Happens is the UK's first crowd funding platform designed especially for museums and galleries and the Piper campaign achieved 118% of its target, with donations from over 170 members of the public.

Speaking on behalf of the Piper family, Jessica Piper, the great grand-daughter of John Piper, said they were “extremely proud and honoured that the local community has supported the River & Rowing Museum’s vision and my great grandfather’s work in this way”.  

“He would have been delighted to have a gallery dedicated to his work in Henley, his local town for nearly 60 years. We simply cannot express how thankful and excited we are about the new John Piper gallery. Thank you to everyone who donated.”

an abstract sketch and painting of a beach scene with lighthouse and harbour in the distance
John Piper, Sketch Inkwash and Gouache (1933).© Ian Macdonald Photography
an abstract design of browns and blues overlaid with a white figure
John Piper, String, Solo paint, sand & string (1934)© Ian Macdonald Photography
a print of a watercolour sketch of church cloisters
John Piper, Inglesham (Artist Proof 1989)© Photo Ian Macdonald Photography
A photo of a framed picture of a cave entrance
Cave Entrance In Easegill (1942)© Photo Ian Macdonald Photography
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