John Piper was born in Epsom on 13 December 1903, the son of solicitor Charles Alfred Piper and Mary Ellen Matthews. There were four children in total. One had died in infancy and the other two were Charles Arthur Matthews, who was killed in the First World War, and Henry Edmund Gordon (26 October 1897- 1978). Henry was also a solicitor and married Gwendoline Minnie Randolph (31 August 1898- 1992) in 1921; they lived in The Causeway, Sutton, Surrey for very many years. All three boys were pupils at Epsom College.
Charles Alfred, born 1862 Westminster, was the son of a bootmaker, Charles Christmas Piper, born c. 1831 Alresford, Hampshire. He in turn was the son of William Piper and Lucy Christmas (hence the forename that ran down the generations). Charles Christmas Piper did not stay in Hampshire but moved to the Bristol area and thence to Westminster: his wife was Hannah Elizabeth Jefferies (married 13 August 1857 St Barnabas, Warmley, Gloucestershire), who probably died in 1868. He never remarried and seems to have brought up his three children (Charles Alfred was the youngest) by himself from then on.
Charles Christmas Piper retired to Epsom and lived at The White House, West Hill; he died on 24 October 1904 in Bishops Teignton, Devon, leaving effects of £14,261 (about £1.4 million in today's money). He was rather more than a bootmaker and the 1900 Epsom rate book shows that the owner of The White House was the Westminster House & Land Co, which I imagine was his own firm. He was certainly a partner in a company of printers and stationers called Wightman & Co, which was wound up in 1887.
Charles Alfred married Mary Ellen Matthews (usually known as Ellen) in 1888 in St George Hanover Square district. Ellen was born in Brighton in 1867, daughter of a hammerman (smith). The family lived at 16 Queen's Gardens, Brighton before moving to Willesden.
Charles Alfred and Ellen seem to have moved to Epsom quite soon after their marriage and they took up residence in a house at 47 Ashley Road, which they named Alresford after his father's birthplace. (After her husband's death Ellen lived at 16 St Martin's Avenue.)
As a young man Mr Piper had been artistic and it might be thought that he would be sympathetic towards a child who favoured art as a career. But no - like many lawyers, he wanted his three boys in a secure and prestigious profession, which meant that they must all follow in father's footsteps. Charles Arthur Matthews went to London University and became a solicitor, but was sadly killed in 1915. Henry Edmund George also became a solicitor and was a partner in his father's firm, Piper, Smith and Piper of Westminster.
Henry Edmund George
Henry was born in Epsom in 1897; he married Gwendoline Minnie Randolph (born 1898 Clapham) in 1921 in Croydon district. Her father, Thomas Henry Randolph (1864-1935), was the Chairman of Wilkinson Sword. Henry and Gwendoline had two children, who were Joyce D (1922-66) and Charles R (born 1927).
As I have said, John was a pupil at Epsom College (1919-22), where he won a drawing prize but apparently did little else of note, although he wrote poetry. Destined for the law, he was articled to his father's firm, having been refused permission to study art: he therefore promised to try the law for three years. Mr Piper died on 14 March 1927 and John promptly gave up law to study art, albeit that he lost his share of his father's estate as a result.
John went to study at the Richmond College of Art (1927-8), where his principal tutor was Raymond Coxon (1896-1997). Coxon executed a diverse body of work, some of it abstract, and also painted church murals; he was particularly strong at line drawing, something which would form the bedrock of John's output.
Whilst at Richmond John met Eileen Holding (1909-84), whom he married in 1929. Ellen Piper was rather more tolerant of her son's artistic ambitions than Charles had been and paid for the building of a studio at Betchworth on the North Downs (a picturesque thatched cottage, now called 'Lynchets' and available as a holiday rental). He went to the Royal College of Art from 1928 to 1929 but was dissatisfied with the philosophy of the tuition and left; he earned a living by writing reviews and exhibited, sometimes with Eileen.
I should say at this point that there are hundreds of Piper works on the internet, which I am mostly unable to show you here for copyright reasons, but, if you go to www.tate.org.uk you can see an impressive slideshow. I really recommend this, since you can sit back and watch the picture show in chronological order, which not only demonstrates his development as an artist but also shows you the different styles of paintings he was doing contemporaneously.
Writing art reviews actually gave John his big foothold in the then current art movement and he came to the attention of people like Ivon Hitchens and Ben Nicholson.
In about 1934 Eileen ran off with artist Ceri Richards (although Richards remained married to his wife Frances) and John met Mary Myfanwy Evans (known as Myfanwy); he separated from Eileen and, after a divorce, married Myfanwy in 1937; they found a farmhouse at Fawley Bottom, near Henley-on-Thames, which was their home until they died.
John designed a large number of fine stained glass windows, including several for the church at nearby Nettlebed, Oxfordshire, Coventry Cathedral, the Robinson Chapel at Cambridge University and many other places: some of them fit the conventional shape of a church window and others are on a vast scale. Here are some wonderful examples.
Many of the designs, including the two immediately above, were executed in collaboration with stained glass artist Patrick Reyntiens OBE (born 1925) and their association lasted for over 35 years: they were introduced to each other by England's national treasure John Betjeman, a friend of the Pipers, in the early 1950s.
Betjeman admired Myfanwy and wrote several poems about her - see www.johnbetjeman.com. John contributed some material to the Shell County Guides, which Betjeman edited, and later became the editor himself.
You may not wish to look at the Tate Gallery slideshow, so I have been trying to find a useable painting which, to me, is a fairly typical Piper and this one fits the bill.
Many of John's paintings were of places and I can recommend the book called Piper's Places by Richard Ingrams and Piper himself, which contains reproductions of dozens of works.
Autographed frontispiece of Piper's Places
Myfanwy (1911-97) was a highly respected art critic and opera librettist and collaborated particularly with Benjamin Britten. She and John had four children, who were Edward Blake Christmas (1938-90, also a painter), Clarissa M (1942), Susannah C (1947) and (Thomas) Sebastian (1950).
Being a Brighton resident, I would very much like to show you some of John's Brighton aquatints (there were 12 in total) and the best I can do in this respect is to give you this link - www.youtube.com. There is a fair bit of inconsequential preamble and some shaky film, but the Piper pictures are good. Another string to John's bow was the design of theatre sets and posters, including some particularly good ones for Ealing Films. He also did work for the War Artists' Advisory Committee.