Lot 49
  • 49

John Piper, C.H.

100,000 - 150,000 GBP
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  • John Piper, C.H.
  • forms on dark blue
  • signed, titled and dated 1936 on the reverse; also signed and inscribed J Piper/ Fawley Bottom/ Henley on Thames on a label attached to the stretcher 
  • oil on canvas
  • 91.5 by 122cm.; 36 by 48in.


The artist, and thence by descent


London, Camden Town, Bowman's furniture shop, 1936;
London, The London Gallery, Constructive Art, July 1937, no.37; 
Oxford, Museum of Modern Art, John Piper: 50 Years of Work, 20 May - 29 July 1979, no.15, illustrated in the catalogue, p.18; with tour to The Minories, Colchester;
London, The Tate Gallery, John Piper, 30 November 1983 - 22 January 1984, no.23;
London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beach, 2003, no.41, illustrated in the catalogue, pp.45, 129.


The following condition report was prepared by the restorer Hamish Dewar. Structural Condition The canvas would appear to be unlined with several areas of repair on the reverse. Paint surface The paint surface has a very degraded varnish layer (consistent with being stored in damp conditions) and surface cleaning should considerably improve the overall appearance giving far greater depth to the pigments with an improved surface coating. It has been suggested that the painting was partially repainted by the artist and the repairs to the canvas and infilling and inpainting also are by Piper. The nature of the fluorescence (where large areas of a different pigment have been applied at a later date) and the manner in which the paint has been applied supports this theory. This is most evident in the pale pigments of the horizontal and vertical sections in the upper left of the composition. Summary The painting has clearly been exposed to moisture in the past and also has several areas of repair and would appear to have been partially repainted and repaired by the artist. Cleaning would certainly be beneficial and would give a more uniform overall appearance. Held in a simple rectilinear wooden frame. Please telephone the department on 020 7293 5381 if you have any questions regarding the present work.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

When the Dulwich Picture Gallery held its major exhibition of Piper's work from the 1930s in 2003, the section devoted to his abstract paintings and constructions came as a revelation to many. Produced over a relatively short period of time, roughly from 1934-39, and until recently rather forgotten at the side of his realist work which followed, his abstracts are nevertheless a crucial element in Piper's career, and the lessons learnt inform the rest of his output in terms of composition, technique and effect. Never produced in great numbers, they also provide us with a powerful insight into the spirit of Modernism in Britain in the 1930s, a period when a small band of artists were able to absorb the example of their European contemporaries and produce works that are quite unique and even today, at seven decades distance, still have a freshness, presence and verve that embodies the artistic style and concerns of the times in a quite unmistakeable way.

The first abstract works that Piper created evolved in the second half of 1934, and seem to have been inspired by a visit that he made to Paris in June of that year when, through introductions from Ben Nicholson, Piper visited a number of artist's studios, including Alexander Calder and Jean Helion (both of whom were to become lifelong friends), and exhibitions, including one by Cesar Domela. On his return he began making abstract constructions, using textured glass, dowels, enamel paint and other non-art materials. These pieces show a remarkable level of compositional accomplishment (see for example, Abstract Construction 1934, Coll. The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester) but these very quickly evolved in 1935 into painted abstracts. Piper had visited Paris again in March 1935, and on this trip he was much impressed by an exhibition of Picasso's paper collages at the Galerie Pierre. Along with his separation from his wife, Eileen Holding, and his moving to a new home, Fawley Bottom Farmhouse, in February of that year, these abstracts must have felt like a new start, and the freshness of the colours and the spontaneity of their simple shapes gives them a vigour that is quite unique. Whilst these paintings, such as Painting 1935 (Coll. National Galleries of Wales, Cardiff) begin to investigate the ordering and spatial relationships of the forms therein, sometimes even using physical means in the surface to do so, it is in the paintings of 1936 that Piper discovers an abstract voice that is purely his own. His involvement in exhibitions such as the important Abstract & Concrete exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in April of that year saw him showing works alongside major European artists such as Mondrian and Giacometti, and these new paintings have a complexity of composition which is quite remarkable. Most notable is the introduction of opened out forms which bring a lightness to the images, perhaps in a way parallel to that achieved by Moore and Hepworth in the piercing of their sculpture.

At about this time, Piper began to reintroduce realist forms into his work, initially in cut paper collages of beach and landscape subjects, and although abstract imagery remained a strong motif until the end of the decade, the return of the subject, and thus narrative, became dominant in his work. However, throughout the remainder of his career, the compositional devices of his abstraction inform his work, from the blocked areas of colour in the images of wartime devastation, through to the designs from Death in Venice in the 1970s.

Now extremely rarely seen on the market, Forms on Dark Blue and Forms on a Green Ground (lot 50) are amongst the most important paintings by Piper ever to come to auction.