Lot 7
  • 7

JOHN PIPER C.H. Byland Abbey

70,000 - 100,000 GBP
106,250 GBP
bidding is closed


  • John Piper
  • Byland Abbey
  • signed, titled and inscribed on the reverse
  • oil on canvas laid on panel


The Leicester Galleries, London
Sir Michael Sadler
Portland Gallery, London, where acquired by the present owner in May 2013


Leeds, Temple Newsam, Henry Moore, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, 25th July - 28th September 1941, cat. no.98;
Leicester, Leicester Museum and Art Gallery, Three British Artists, Henry Moore, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Organised for Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts by the British Institute of Adult Education, November - December 1941, cat. no.45.


S. John Woods, John Piper, Paintings, Drawings and Theatre Designs, 1932-1954, Curt Valentin, New York, 1955, cat. no.77, illustrated;
Anthony West, John Piper, Secker and Warburg, London, 1979, p.69, illustrated.

Catalogue Note

‘there’s one very odd thing about painters who like drawing architecture. They hardly ever like drawing architecture of their own time. I know perfectly well that I would rather paint a ruined abbey half-covered with ivy and standing among long grass’ (John Piper, ‘Buildings in English Art’, in ‘John Piper at the A.A.’, The Architect & Building News, 9th May 1941, p.85).

In 1939, following the outbreak of war, under the directorship of Sir Kenneth Clark, the War Artists’ Advisory Committee came into being, headed by luminaries such as Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Stanley Spencer and John Piper. One of the defining activities that the WAAC came to perform was the 'Recording the changing face of Britain' scheme, now known as 'Recording Britain'. This programme was intended to document the nation’s heritage and natural beauty, which included the recording of regional architectural quirks, areas of particular natural beauty, significant landmarks and other aspects of the nation’s identity in anticipation of the catastrophic effects of war. As a propaganda tool it was a tremendous coup and as well as a pronounced contribution to the patriotic fervour of the period, reignited people’s interest in the landscape (both built and natural) around them. Throughout the 1930s Piper’s work had been typified by its progressive abstraction, however, as he noted to Richard Ingrams ‘the looming war made the clear but closed world of abstract art untenable for me. It made the whole pattern and structure of thousands of English sites more precious as they became more likely to disappear.’

Following the beginning of the German bombing campaign in Britain in 1940 the necessity of recording British monuments intensified. As a direct result of the changing face of the country Piper’s art came to focus on the recently destroyed. It was around this time that he produced a particularly important series on destroyed churches and cathedrals, notably that of Coventry Cathedral, following its destruction in November 1940 (Herbert Museum, Coventry).

Byland Abbey had, prior to the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, been one of the richest and most considerable Church buildings in England. The sublime wreckage of the monasteries that had come into being over the subsequent three hundred years was hugely attractive to English Romantic artists such as JMW Turner and John Sell Cotman in the early 19th Century, and again to the Neo-Romantics of the first half of the 20th Century. Piper had spent much time as a child visiting the ruined abbeys of England with his family and it is perhaps unsurprising that in the context of war he should return to the monuments, which simultaneously represent a high water mark in English architectural history and a memorial to the destruction of the past.

In the present work Piper puts to great visual effect the contrast between dark skies and vibrantly highlighted buildings in the foreground, typical of Piper’s very best work. Interestingly, during this period images that depict bomb destruction include yellow pigment much more frequently and with much more vigour, which can be read in our present work. 

Byland Abbey was previously owned by Sir Michael Sadler, a great patron of contemporary art and an early and influential champion of abstract art in Britain. The work was lent by Sir Michael to the 1941 exhibition at Temple Newsam in Leeds of Henry Moore, John Piper and Graham Sutherland. The exhibition showed forty-two oils by Piper and watercolours, prints and collages from almost a decade of work. The exhibition proved critical in the establishment of all three artists as household names.