John Piper; Surrealism in Egypt: Art et Liberté 1938-48 – review

By Laura Cumming

Tate Liverpool
John Piper's gift for making England glow in the dark is lost in a chaotic show. For sheer strangeness, try the Egyptian surrealists next door

A John Piper story – quite possibly the only Piper story. The much-lauded artist is commissioned to paint Windsor Castle during the second world war in case the buildings are destroyed. In his watercolours, the castle looks paler than ever against a series of ragingly portentous skies. The royals are not amused. George VI remarks, with some acuity: “You seem to have very bad luck with your weather, Mr Piper.”

It is never a fine day in the work of John Piper (1903-92); not even in the Shell Guides which, together with his stained glass windows in the cathedrals of Liverpool and Coventry surely remain among his greatest contributions to English art. But the king's quip gathers new meaning in this very odd survey at Tate Liverpool. Here is an English landscape painter, a neo-romantic admired for his atmospheric sense of place, from the soft Wiltshire hills to the rolling Sussex Downs to the chalky Chilterns where he lived for 60 years; a war artist respected for his burned-out London and wintry desolation in the shires. But instead we are presented with Piper the internationalist.

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Source: John Piper; Surrealism in Egypt: Art et Liberté 1938-48 – review