John Piper at Tate Liverpool

Originally commissioned for the new British Embassy in Rio de Janeiro in 1949, Brighton: Regency Square, a large-scale painting by John Piper will be on show at a major exhibition of the artist's work opening at Tate Liverpool on 17 November 2017 until 18 March 2018.

Brighton: Regency Square

© Estate of the artist

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Like a theatrical set design, Brighton: Regency Square depicts the characteristic architectural style of the fashionable coastal British town. It is one of five paintings depicting street scenes of British spa towns – along with Cheltenham and Bath – that were commissioned from the artist for display in the new British Embassy in Rio de Janeiro in 1949. Piper chose to set the scene of this painting amid the Georgian architecture of the town, emphasising the 18th century period during which spa towns were at the height of popularity. A magnet for fashionable men and women, Brighton was a destination that attracted visitors to its stylish atmosphere and the remedial qualities of its water. The Prince of Wales' visit to Brighton in 1783 cemented the town's reputation and encouraged the building of grand Georgian edifices such as Regency Square (1818) with its undulating bow windows and decorative cast-iron balconies.

In 1949 the commission to create works for the wall panels of the new British Embassy in Rio de Janeiro was awarded to Piper. An extraordinarily prolific artist, his work was highly appropriate for the Neo-Classical embassy. The five scenes of Brighton, Cheltenham and Bath that he produced, reflected the Regency architecture Piper knew well. The commissioned paintings were highly regarded when they were first unveiled in Brazil, and considered to be amongst the finest work Piper had produced. One critic at the time remarked on 'Mr Piper's hot colour – brilliant yellow facades and undulating balconies'. These paintings, the first commissioned works in the Government Art Collection, were transferred to the new capital Brasilia in 1975. The works have since been displayed in other locations.

Piper demonstrated a love of architecture from an early age, making drawings of buildings as a young man and later writing for the Architectural Review. Through his friendship with the poet, John Betjeman, in 1953 he was commissioned to write The Shell Guide to Oxfordshire, for which Piper travelled around the county recording individual characteristics of buildings and landmarks.

John Piper was born in 1903 in Epsom Surrey. Starting his working life at his father's firm of solicitors, by 1926, Piper had enrolled at Richmond School of Art. A year later, he began studies at the Royal College of Art. A friend of many leading modern artists, notably Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Paul Nash, Piper regularly exhibited his work with the London Group and with the Seven and Five Society.

During the Second World War, Piper worked as an official war artist, and was commissioned to produce images of Britain's buildings, both those of historical interest and those damaged by air raids. The imposing, but calm grandeur of the Georgian façade in Piper's painting of Regency Square in Brighton is in bold contrast to the scenes of destruction that Piper had witnessed and recreated in paintings seven years earlier. During his time as a war artist, he also recorded urban bomb damage in London, Bristol and Coventry.

Piper also produced celebrated designs for book illustrations, theatre sets, ceramics, stained-glass and textiles. Many retrospectives of his work have been held in the UK and abroad since the 1970s –recent examples include John Piper: The Fabric of Modernism at The Pallant Gallery, Chichester (2016); and John Piper in the 1930s at Dulwich Picture Gallery (2003).

Further information

John Piper
Tate Liverpool
Albert Dock
Liverpool Waterfront
Liverpool L3 4BB

Telephone: 0151 702 7400
Email: visiting.liverpool@tate.org.uk