John Piper

All Saints Chapel, Bath


Not on display

John Piper 1903–1992
Ink, chalk, gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 425 × 559 mm
frame: 615 × 745 × 25 mm
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

Display caption

Piper already had a reputation as a painter of historic architecture, in particular of ruined buildings, when he was commissioned to record war damage. He had painted in Bristol and the Houses of Parliament when Bath was bombed on the nights of 25, 26 and 27 April 1942 in some of the first ‘Baedeker raids’, so called because the targets were cultural rather than strategic and said to be selected from the pre-war Baedeker guide books. Piper went quickly to Bath when, he recorded, the ‘ruins were still smouldering and bodies being dug out.’

Gallery label, May 2007

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

All Saints Chapel, Bath 1942


Indian ink, watercolour, bodycolour and pastel on paper
430 x 559 (17 x 22)

Inscribed in yellow crayon/chalk 'John Piper' b.l.
Watermark '...DICHALLET | ...ICE'
Printed War Artists Advisory Committee label and no.LD 1970

Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

?National War Pictures, National Gallery, London 1942 (changing display, no cat.)
Nutida Engelsk Akvarellkonst, British Council tour of Sweden, Dec. 1942-3, Nationalmusei, Stockholm, 1943 (44)
Autumn Exhibition, Brighton Art Gallery, 1943 (102)
? National War Pictures, National Gallery, London 1943-4 (changing display, no cat.)
National War Pictures, tour of South Africa, 'all major centres', 1944 (no catalogue traced)
Memorial Exhibition: The War Artists, New Metropole Arts Centre, Folkestone, Aug.-Sept. 1964 (72, repr.)
An Age of Conflict, Imperial War Museum, London (in association with BBC Radio 3 series The Artist and War in the Twentieth Century), Oct. 1967-Feb. 1968 (no catalogue traced)
John Piper, Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford, Sept.-Oct. 1968 (44)
John Piper, Tate Gallery, London, Nov. 1983-Jan. 1984 (57, repr.)
World War II, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Nov. 1989 (54)

N.A.D. Wallis, 'Notes on Books: The Penguin Modern Painters', Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol.94, no.4709, 18 Jan. 1946, p.130
Twentieth Century British Watercolours from the Tate Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1958 (30, repr.)
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.522
Frances Spalding, 'The Ravages of War and Weather', Times Literary Supplement, 23 Dec. 1984, p.1433
'John Piper: Obituary', Daily Telegraph, 30 June 1992, p.20

Eric Newton, War Pictures at the National Gallery, London 1942, [p.8]
War Pictures at the National Gallery, London 1944, [p.8]
John Betjeman, John Piper, Harmondsworth 1944, pl.25 (col.)
Eric Newton, War through Artists' Eyes, London 1945, p.78
The Artist and War in the Twentieth Century, booklet to accompany BBC Radio 3 series of the same name, London 1967, p.28
John Piper, exh. cat., Gadsby Gallery, Leicester, April-May 1973, p.38, in col. (as Landsdowne Proprietary Chapel, All Saints, Bath, after raids May 1942)
Anthony West, John Piper, London 1979, p.112, pl.63 (as Lansdowne Proprietary Chapel, Bath, after bombing)

A change from oil to watercolour reflected a fundamental shift in Piper's approach to his commissions from the War Artists Advisory Committee. The works of late 1940, such as St Mary le Port, Bristol (Tate Gallery N05718) and the bombed London churches, had been followed by the Houses of Parliament (May 1941); all of these culminated in oils. The change to watercolour for the Bath paintings of May 1942 may be associated with Piper's intervening suite of twenty-six watercolours of Windsor for the Queen, begun in August 1941 in the spirit of Paul Sandby's views of the Castle for George III (David Fraser Jenkins, John Piper, exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London, p.91). Piper's oils had exposed the physical presence of the buildings on their surface; the fluidity of watercolours became more suggestive of mood, while the details of destruction could be enumerated with great precision. A brooding quality may be recognised in the Bath watercolours. Their 'theatrical lighting' and colouring relate, as Jenkins has pointed out (ibid.), to Piper's contemporary stage designs - he was working on Facade (Edith Sitwell and William Walton) at that time - and to an awareness of Graham Sutherland's earlier works in the East End of London, the Devastation 1941 series (e.g. Tate Gallery N05735, N05736 and N05737). Jenkins has recognised 'a sense of violation' in Piper's Bath watercolours, although Peter Fuller saw them springing 'to life with a mysterious decorative hope' (Peter Fuller, 'John Piper: Neo-Romanticism in the 1980s', Modern Painters, vol.1, no.2, Summer 1988, p.17).

Bath was bombed on the nights of 25, 26 and 27 April 1942 in some of the first Baedeker raids, so called because the targets were cultural rather than strategic and said to be selected from the pre-war Baedeker guide books. The overwhelming impact was captured in the blazing fires shown in W.S. Haines's Bath Blitzed (Imperial War Museum, repr. M.R.D. Foot, Art & War Twentieth Century Warfare as Depicted by War Artists, London 1990, p.124, pl.24 in col.). According to Fuller, the King and Queen arrived to view the damage on 2 May (Fuller 1988, p.17). Norwich, York, Exeter and Canterbury were subjected to Baedeker raids by the beginning of June. They were in response to RAF attacks on the similarly historical cities of Lübeck and Rostock in March 1942. As a compiler of guide books, Piper must have found their use for destruction especially painful. Furthermore, Bath had been a particular interest as he had published 'London to Bath: a topographical and critical survey of the Bath road' exactly three years earlier (Architectural Review, vol.85, May 1939).

Three days after the bombing ceased, E.M. O'Rourke Dickey, the secretary to the WAAC told Piper that 'we hope that you will go forthwith to Bath' to draw the damage (30 April 1942, Board Correspondence, Imperial War Museum). When asked about his response, Piper told the Tate: 'I think I went on 30th - there was certainly a hurry, I remember, and (again) ruins were still smouldering and bodies being dug out.' (letter to Tate Gallery, 15 July 1958). He concentrated on the Lansdown area, in the north-western heart of the Georgian developments, where the damage was greatest. The impact was such that he abandoned his earlier confinement to churches and included views of the terraces, as examples both of domesticity and of finely conceived architecture. As finished works were submitted to the WAAC by 13 May, Piper must have spent the first week making drawings for Somerset Place (Tate Gallery N05720) and Centre of Somerset Place (Manchester City Art Gallery, repr. Neo-Romantics: Drawings and Watercolours, exh. cat. Imperial War Museum, London 1981, no.19), and in the adjacent Lansdown Crescent to the east for All Saints Chapel and Lansdown Crescent Seen from the Ruins of Lansdown Chapel (British Council, repr. S. John Woods, John Piper: Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, London 1955, no.66). Burnt-out Victorian House, Lansdown (Leeds City Art Gallery) was made nearby and the site of Terrace at Mount Beacon (Cheltenham Art Gallery) was slightly to the north east; it is likely that the more anonymous Bombed Buildings (Harrogate Public Library and Art Gallery, repr. ibid no.64) was in the same area. He listed to Betjeman, with whom he had explored the Bath road (and whose mother lived in the city), the major sites that had been hit:

3 homes burnt out in Royal Cresc., bomb in the middle of Circus and 2 burnt out there; Lansdown Chapel direct hit, 10 bombs in front of Lansdown Cresc. Somerset Place almost completely burnt out: a shell. No damage to Pulteney St. or bridge or museum. Many dim terraces badly damaged. 326 killed, 1800 houses uninhabitable. Might have been worse but not much. Assembly rooms utterly gutted ...
(15 May 1942, Betjeman Papers, University of Victoria, British Columbia)
The litany continued with 'Churches not too bad'. Although he bracketed his comments by saying 'I never was sent to do anything so sad before ... My God I did hate that week', Piper felt able to add: 'But the air of Bath is still there' (ibid.). It is notable that this is also the letter with the sketch of Nude (Tate Gallery T05835), showing contrasting strands in the artist's work.

Lansdown Chapel, the alternative name for the subject of All Saints Chapel, lay at the heart of Piper's record of the Bath blitz, perhaps because it fulfilled his original brief to record churches. It was a proprietary chapel, built in Georgian Gothick style by John Palmer in 1794, following the latter's completion of the classical Lansdown Crescent (1789-93). The direct hit, on the night of Sunday 26 April, blew out two sections of wall, as shown in the British Council's companion piece, Lansdown Crescent Seen from the Ruins of Lansdown Chapel; the roof and fittings were consumed in the ensuing fire. Sketches allowed Piper to resolve All Saints Chapel on good quality off-white laid paper, although losses (upper right corner and centre of the base) suggest a certain urgency. The layering of watercolour and opaque bodycolour, set ochre and black within a contrasting dark green surround with flashes of blue. The view was channelled into the gaping hole as if following the path of the blast. The interior - transformed in colour by the fire - was highlighted with dots of white and rubbed-in red ochre chalk, while the Gothick architecture was picked out in ink. The colouring, as much as the smouldering scree of bricks, dramatised the destruction. The artist faced out towards Lansdown Crescent for the British Council's watercolour, but the framing remnants of the Chapel seem less shocking and more romantically ruinous.

Depressing though the effort was for Piper, the WAAC were pleased with the results. Submitted on 13 May, Dickey reported to him two days later that they were 'received with acclamation' (17 July 1942, Board Correspondence, Imperial War Museum). A distinction was made between the three large works - Centre of Somerset Place, Lansdown Place East and Lansdown Crescent, and Somerset Place (LD.1975, subsequently presented to the Tate, N05720) - which were 'accepted in fulfilment of your commission', and the remaining four works which were 'officially purchased'. It is likely that they joined the changing display of 'War Pictures' at the National Gallery, before All Saints Chapel was sent for exhibition in Sweden. Two years later, Betjeman already considered that Piper 'was probably never better than at Bath, because there is no city to which he is more attached' (John Piper, Harmondsworth 1944, p.15). Simultaneously, the propaganda value of the watercolours was again demonstrated by the explanation accompanying Somerset Place in the fourth War Pictures by British Artists selection (June 1944, [p.6]): 'John Piper ... went to Bath to record the affect of the brutal bombing of this lovely city by the frustrated Nazis out of revenge for the British attacks on German war factories.' After the war the WAAC distributed their paintings to public galleries; the badly damaged All Saints Chapel was 'rebuilt as a weakly Tudorish private house' (Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: North Somerset and Bristol, Harmondsworth 1958, p.105).

Matthew Gale
August 1996

You might like

In the shop