Modern British artist John Piper distinguishes himself through his exceptional versatility and capacity to navigate various artistic styles and eras throughout his illustrious career. Piper showcases a remarkable breadth of artistic expression from his abstract compositions to more figurative representations. For art enthusiasts looking to include Modern British masterpieces in their collections, Piper's prints offer an accessible and cost-effective investment avenue, providing an entry point to explore his diverse body of work and appreciate his significant contributions to the tapestry of British art history.
Piper's journey in the art market has followed a noteworthy trajectory, primarily centred around London, underscoring a localised demand for his creations. Piper's more abstract pieces are relatively rare in the market, intensifying their allure and consequently commanding high prices.
The 1930s marked a crucial period in Piper's artistic evolution, where his matured style emerged. During this defining era, he embraced a more abstract approach to distill the essence of his art through meticulous material exploration. Painting (1935) epitomises Piper's unwavering commitment to this vision. Utilising a constructivist technique, he carved out specific sections of the canvas and applied a diverse palette of bold colours, resulting in a textured panel interplaying with fractured geometric forms. This painting serves as a quintessential representation of British Abstraction. Notably, Painting has an impressive exhibition history, including a showing at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2003, and it holds significance as it set a record auction price of £482,500 (including fees) at Christie's in November 2013.
Forms On A White Ground (1935) also employs a cut canvas technique, featuring vividly coloured hues meticulously applied to a white and grey painted panel. The composition intricately weaves together geometric shapes, exploring intersecting geometries. Piper strategically introduces a black rectangle with an appended semicircle at the centre of the piece, creating a focal point that enhances visual impact and spatial depth. This deliberate placement of the black element directs the viewer's gaze towards specific geometric configurations, heightening the artwork's dynamism and abstract complexity. Notably, this artwork has a prestigious provenance, originally owned by Sir Clifford Norton, a World War I officer and the British ambassador in Athens. Norton acquired it from Piper in 1966 and consigned it to Christie's, where it initially achieved a hammer price of £24,997. In June 2020, the painting reappeared at auction, realising £371,250 (including fees), highlighting the increasing value of Piper's artworks and the desirability of his abstract creations.
In Abstract Painting (1935), Piper skilfully manipulates geometric shapes, partially cutting the canvas and orchestrating a harmonious blend of colours. The artwork showcases a dynamic equilibrium achieved through various black geometries, strict verticals, rounded semicircles, and delicate organic forms. Piper's mastery of form, line, and colour creates an undulating effect within the work, painting his unique language on canvas. This celebrated piece sold for £362,500 (fees included) at Christie's in November 2015.
Forms On Dark Blue (1936) and other pieces from this 1930s series are remarkable for their rarity, being some of Piper's earliest abstract works. Influenced by his encounters with contemporaries Ben Nicholson and Alexander Calder during a trip to Paris, Piper's creations boast simplicity in shape yet radiate dynamic energy and vibrant colours. This period marked a crucial contribution to the evolution of Modernism in Britain. Displayed in esteemed London institutions like the Tate, and was also the star work in The John Piper retrospective, John Piper: 50 Years of Work, in 1979 at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. Forms On Dark Blue continues to hold its place among Piper's highest-selling works, fetching £325,250 (fees included) at Sotheby's in July 2008, showcasing its enduring and unparalleled value over a decade later.
Painting (1937) comprises a large-scale diptych, with strategically placed black, white, and orange accents creating a striking contrast against the prevailing subdued blue tones that dominate the composition. This intentional juxtaposition invites viewers to embark on a visual journey, moving from left to right, as they unravel the geometric interplay between form and colour. Painting achieved an impressive sale at Sotheby's in May 2011, realising of £265,250 (fees included) and situating among Piper's top ten highest-selling works.
This artwork stands out as one of Piper's largest canvases in his esteemed Forms On Ground series. Unlike other pieces like Forms On White Ground (1935) and Forms On Dark Blue (1936), the title of this work signals a distinct shift towards a green palette. The green tones subtly incorporate hints of brown, giving the artwork an earthy ambiance that adds depth and character to the composition. Piper skilfully highlights delicate white lines and subtle inclusions of primary colours, red and blue, contrasting with the overall washed, earthy effect of the canvas. Piper's Forms On Ground pieces are exceptionally rare finds in the market, often characterised by limited provenance acquired directly from the artist himself and are difficult to date. Forms On Green Ground was sold at Sotheby's in July 2008, achieving £157,250 (fees included), emphasising the desirability and value associated with these exceptional creations.
In Abstraction (1937), Piper's artistic ambition and exploration shine through an expanded spectrum of colours. Employing his distinctive technique of integrating canvas cutouts and direct paint application to the panel, this artwork showcases dominant verticals in various hues and patterns, including stripes and rounded organic forms. Black horizontals on the edges are juxtaposed with white in the centre, guiding the viewer's gaze and inviting them on a visual journey across the canvas. Understanding Piper's work allows the abstraction to transport you through every area of the canvas, a hallmark of his artistic language. Abstraction achieved £217,250 (fees included) at Christie's in May 2010, underscoring its inherent value and the desirability for Piper's abstract works in the art market.
During his role as an official war artist in 1944, Piper's artistic direction shifted due to his experiences documenting the aftermath of bombed buildings, influencing a unique, introspective style reminiscent of Joseph Mallord William Turner. Binham Priory, Norfolk embodies both war-torn scenes and a romanticised church. The paint application displays freely executed brushstrokes in dark greys and blues, evoking a somber wartime atmosphere. Yet, hints of yellows and oranges introduce a fleeting moment, suggesting either sunlight or, more provocatively, flames flickering through a window. While the exact date of this mysterious artwork remains uncertain, it likely originates from the 1950s. Binham Priory, Norfolk, with its perplexing and enigmatic qualities, stands as one of Piper's top-selling works, achieving £142,400 (including fees) at Christie's in November 2006.
Sea Buildings (1938), represents a pivotal moment in Piper's artistic development, displaying subtle traces of representational elements in both the artwork and its title. Reflecting Piper's distinctive style, the piece employs a collage-like technique, integrating painted sections of cut-out canvas onto a wooden panel. A significant portion of the panel is deliberately left unpainted, creating a contrast with the brown-painted perimetre, symbolically resembling the division between land and sea. Unlike many of his other abstract works, which often bear non-referential titles, "Sea Buildings" carries a more specific designation, suggesting potential inspiration drawn from the sea—a theme prevalent among Piper's contemporaries in the realm of Modern British abstraction, such as Terry Frost and Victor Pasmore. This artwork initially appeared at Bonhams in November 2007, commanding a hammer price of £86,000. Later, it reemerged at Christie's in June 2018, achieving £118,750 (including fees), firmly establishing its status as one of Piper's most coveted creations.
Following John Piper's foray into abstraction and emerging during the mid-1950s, Portland Stone Perspective (1954) provides a suggestive glimpse of Chesil Beach in Portland, Canada. In this artwork, a notable shift towards figuration becomes apparent. While traces of abstraction persist in the architecture of the buildings, these elements gradually guide the viewer towards the rocky shore and the surrounding coastal waters. On the opposite side of the composition, an abstracted, curving road comes into view, flanked by architectonic forms characterised by shades of grey that spring to life through delicate black lines.
Portland Stone Perspective is a prime example of Piper's figurative phase, though it retains a tangible sense of abstraction. This painting ranks among Piper's top-selling works, achieving £110,500 (fees included) at Christie's London in November 2013.
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