John Piper

St Mary le Port, Bristol


Image released under

License this image

John Piper 1903–1992
Oil paint and graphite on canvas on wood
Support: 762 × 635 mm
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

Display caption

Piper was commissioned as a war artist during the Second World War, painting civilian life in the UK during the conflict. He made a series of paintings of bombed buildings, visiting the sites to take photographs and make sketches. These formed the basis for a series of paintings. From 1940, he focused particularly on churches that had been damaged or destroyed. St Mary le Port was hit in the attacks on Bristol Docks in November 1940.

Gallery label, April 2019

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

St Mary-le-Port, Bristol 1940 
Oil (and ? pastel) on canvas mounted on plywood 
767 x 636 (30 1/4 x 25) 
Incised inscription 'John Piper' b.r. 
Inscribed on back in black oil paint 'St Mary le Port, Bristol | John Piper' t.l.; and in other hands, in blue crayon 'Salford' top, and in pencil 'AR 7011' on canvas return t.l. 
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946 
National War Pictures, National Gallery, London 1942 (changing display, no cat.) 
War Pictures, tour of the Caribbean, Kingston, Jamaica, Jan.-Feb. 1942, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, March, and possible other venues (no number) 
National War Pictures, National Gallery, London 1943-5 (changing display, no cat.) 
Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery, British Council tour, 1946-7, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Jan.-Feb. 1946 (68), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, March (68), Raadhushallen, Copenhagen, April-May (68), Musée de Jeu de Paume, Paris, June-July (68), Musée des Beaux Arts, Berne, Aug. (68), Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna, Sept. (69), Narodni Galerie, Prague, Oct.-Nov. (69), Muzeum Narodne, Warsaw, Nov.-Dec. (69), Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Rome, Jan.-Feb. 1947 (69) 
Continental Exhibition: Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery Exhibited Under the Auspices of the British Council, Tate Gallery, London May-Sept.1947; publication supplemented as Fifty Years Tate Gallery 1897-1947: Pictures from the Tate Gallery Foundation Gift and Exhibition of Subsequent British Painting, (no number) 
Modern British Pictures from the Tate Gallery, Arts Council tour 1947-8, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, Sept.-Oct.1947, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, Oct.-Nov., Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, Nov.-Dec., Birkenhead, Williamson Art Gallery, Jan.1948, Bristol City Art Gallery, Jan.-Feb. 1948, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth, Feb-March, Brighton Art Gallery and Museum, March-April, Plymouth City Art Gallery, April-May, Castle Museum, Nottingham, May-June, Huddersfield Museum and Art Gallery, June-July, Aberdeen Art Gallery, July-Aug., Salford Art Gallery and Museum, Aug.-Sept. (47) 
Henry Moore to Gilbert and George: Modern British Art from the Tate Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, Sept.-Nov. 1973, as part of Europalia 73 Great Britain 1973 (5) 
John Piper, Tate Gallery, London, Nov. 1983-Jan. 1984 (46, repr.) 
World War II, Tate Gallery Liverpool, Sept.-Nov. 1989 (53) 
Arte della Liberté: Antifascismo, guerra e liberazione in Europa 1925-45, Palazzo Ducale, Genoa, Nov. 1995-Jan. 1996 (167, col. repr. p.248) 
Richard Seddon, 'The Artist's Vision: 1. Two Types of Perception', Studio, no.136, Dec. 1948, p.164, repr. in col. p.169 
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, II, London 1965, p.522 
'John Piper: Obituary', Daily Telegraph, 30 June 1992, p.20 
War Pictures by British Artists No.2: Blitz, London 1942, pl.37 
Carlos Peacock, Painters and Writers: An Anthology, London 1949, p.201, pl.85 (in col., as All Saint's Chapel, Bath
Anthony Bertram, A Century of British Painting 1851-1951, London 1951, p.202, pl.74 (col.) 
John Sunderland, Painting in Britain 1525-1975, Oxford, 1976, pl.204 
'Exhibition Reviews', Art and Artists, no.208, Jan. 1984, p.32 
Lorna Watts and Philip Rahtz, Mary-le-Port, Bristol; Excavations 1962/3, Bristol 1985 (cover in col.) 
The artist applied a chalk ground to the canvas which had been stiffened by being glued to a plywood panel. Variations in the thickness of the ground coincide in places with the forms in the image. This may have been developed in the course of painting, as Conservation analysis shows that the ground appears to be applied over a darker paint layer in some places, while in others colour was mixed with the chalk before application (Tate Gallery conservation files). A variety of textures were possible: from the scratching into the chalk (including the signature) to the thick impasto, and from pencil work to thin washes. The result is comparable to masonry. 
In March 1940, Piper demonstrated his topographical ability at a successful exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, which included recent oil paintings of country houses such as Hafod, Cardiganshire. In the following month he began his association with the War Artists' Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Information which commissioned him selectively. This allowed time for topographical work, at Seaton Delaval (Tate Gallery N05748) and elsewhere, and for other projects such as Recording Britain. By way of a trial subject, the WAAC commissioned Piper to paint an Air Raid Precaution centre in May; the result, The Passage to the Control Room at S. W. Regional Headquarters, Bristol (Imperial War Museum, repr. John Piper, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London 1983, no.43, p.95), necessitated his first official trip to the city. According to David Fraser Jenkins (ibid., p.90), it was in early November that the artist, through the influence of the Chairman Sir Kenneth Clark, persuaded the WAAC to allow him to concentrate upon bombed churches, beginning with one at Newport Pagnell. WAAC records confirm that the decision was made on 9 November 1940 (Board Correspondence, Imperial War Museum). The choice may just as much reflect Piper's recent acceptance into the Anglican church (1939) as his architectural interests, but it certainly furnished more promising material. He had already been working from ruins - buildings left derelict, like Hafod, rather than deliberately destroyed - seeking in them picturesque decay. As distinct from this or the conservation purpose of Recording Britain, it is notable that the WAAC work was necessarily reactive, responding to destruction as a function of its propaganda purpose. 
Piper's specialist commission anticipated the devastating raid on Coventry of 14 November 1940. A revenge attack for RAF bombing of Berlin and Hamburg, it resulted in 1000 casualties and the gutting of the Cathedral and much of the city. In his swift reaction, Piper established the pattern of his WAAC work: arriving 'the following morning, before the clearing up' (ibid.), he made drawings of the destroyed churches from which paintings were worked-up in the studio. A finished oil was sent to the WAAC by 24 November; following the Committee's numbering, this must have been Coventry Cathedral, November 15th, 1940 (WAAC no. LD.688, City of Manchester Art Galleries, repr. exh. cat., Tate 1983, no.44, p.54 in col.) rather than Interior of Coventry Cathedral, November 15th, 1940 (LD.734, Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry, repr. ibid., no.45, p.95) as suggested by Jenkins (ibid.). 
That day, the Germans raided Bristol. The sculptor Frank Dobson, who was living there, made several sketches subsequently bought by the WAAC, including Park Street Bristol, Burning after an Air Raid, 24th Nov.1940 (Bristol Museum and Art Gallery). Writing to E.M. O'Rourke Dickey of the WAAC on the same day, Piper specified: 'I propose Bristol to myself and am finding out what is ruinous and if picturesque' (24 Nov.1940, Board Correspondence, Imperial War Museum). This encapsulated his combination of propagandist reportage and Neo-Romantic topography. The artist later claimed that the raid on Bristol 'took place the night before I arrived there (very likely on 25th Nov ...) The ruins of one or two churches were still smoking' (letter to Tate Gallery, 15 July 1958). However, this account may have been confused with that of Coventry, as he wrote to Dickey on 7 December 1940 that he was going to Bristol 'tomorrow', and two days later he submitted a bill for the car that took him there. This was his only visit and, according to the bill he stayed for three hours. Within the limited time, he sketched several churches, ranging from Mary-le-Port street south-east of Bristol's High Cross to All Saints, Knowle (repr. Anthony West, John Piper, London 1979, fig.66, p.113). A photograph of St Mary-le-Port survives taken from the same viewpoint as that in the painting - from the east end of the church (Tate Gallery Archive, Piper photographs 'Bombed churches 1941', no.173.2.2); this would have supplemented Piper's quick sketches. According to Jenkins (exh. cat. Tate 1983, p.90), the three resulting oils were made in the studio in early December; St Mary-le-Port, BristolThe Temple Church and The Church of the Holy Nativity (both Bristol City Art Gallery) were with the WAAC by 7 January 1941 (Board Correspondence, Imperial War Museum). In the WAAC numbering St Mary le Port, Bristol, (LD.735) was separated from the other Bristol works by Interior of Coventry Cathedral, November 15th, 1940 (LD.734), indicating that the images of the two cities were worked on concurrently. 
St Mary-le-Port, Bristol is typical of Piper's first images of blitzed churches. He adapted the colouring and simplified forms from his 1939 views of country houses. Neither design nor colour was realistic, but each enhanced the drama of destruction, the exposure of interior and of structure to the elements and the recognition of the fragility of architecture made senseless as rubble. With such monuments under attack, the continuity of intangible strands for which they stood - faith and community, tradition and memory - was threatened. To defy this assault was one purpose of Piper's record and in St Mary-le-Port, Bristol this is embodied in the west tower, placed above a shaft of red and dramatically coloured orange and ochre with scratching through to black. This is reinforced by the fine spire of the neighbouring church of St Nicholas, which the painter set against a block of black. Writing to Betjeman after revisiting the city eighteen months later, Piper remarked that towns 'get even more of their own character to compensate' for bombing (15 May 1942, Betjeman Papers, University of Victoria, British Columbia). 
Piper infused the picture surface with the assault on the values for which the building stood. The experience of Coventry, witnessed ten days earlier, was still fresh when he arrived in Bristol. He wrote of the transformation of the fabric and colour of Coventry cathedral through fire and water, and of the survival of the 'erect tower and spire. Outline of the walls against the steamy sky a series of ragged loops' (Architectural Review, quoted in Richard Ingrams and John Piper, Piper's Places: John Piper in England and Wales, London 1983, p.87). The survival of the tower became a theme of defiance. Betjeman remarked that Piper used 'his theory of colour to keep the drama of a newly fallen bomb alive' (John Piper, Harmondsworth 1944, p.15). The layering of the paint on the chalk ground of St Mary le Port, Bristol and the intensified colours (ochre, blue and crimson set in black and grey) re-made the building on the canvas. The surface was scarred in sympathy with the stones, scratched away urgently in the blue in the sky and the heaped descent of ochre rubble to the right. The opened up interior, flanked by the shattered north wall, bore the traces of carefully aligned monuments and the drawn-in tracery of a Perpendicular window. Enough details remain to make it recognisable but, following the bomb, Piper further stripped away the superfluous in condensing the evidence of random destruction. 
St Mary-le-Port remained gutted after the war, closely matching what Piper had painted after the raid. Nikolaus Pevsner recorded the 'plain three-staged west tower, with blank arcaded battlements, higher stair-turret, & spirelet' (The Buildings of England: North Somerset and Bristol, Harmondsworth 1958, p.395). Piper's painting served in unexpected capacities: as a War painting it was sent to the Caribbean in 1942, as a modern painting it was reproduced on a 1/6 stamp in 1968. 
Matthew Gale 
December 1996 

You might like

In the shop