JOHN Piper was not the first artist to try his hand at portraying Edwardian Brighton and presumably he won’t be the last.

But the Surrey-born painter and printmaker – who came to public attention in his role as a war artist – captured the essence and history of the city in a way that few others have. Piper’s book of aquatints (a form of printmaking that requires great delicacy) was published just before the outbreak of the Second World War.

It features prints of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton Palace Pier and the chalk-white Regency-era houses of the Brunswick area in Hove. Alan Powers, the curator of a new exhibition of these works at Brighton Museum, first became aware of Piper after his father bought the book for six guineas during the war.

“It’s been a big influence for me,” says Powers, an architectural and design historian. “This is the first time anybody has seen the full set of his work. Even people who were interested in Piper back at that time didn’t know the full extent of his art because they didn’t have a copy of his book.”

Piper, who died in 1992, was renowned for the dark, brooding skies he portrayed in his prints, which you can see above. While the artist is best known for his depictions of crumbling ruins in Britain as the war progressed, Powers says the gothic atmosphere of the pictures above hint indirectly at the trouble that was brewing towards the end of the 1930s. “The skies gave his work a real sense of doom,” says the curator.

Piper, adds Powers, was always “looking back to a vision of Edwardian Brighton” in his portrayals of the city, fascinated as he was by the architecture it had to offer. While there was “cynicism” about the future in the 1930s, Piper was keen to show the beauty of the landscape – as well as strike an important conservation message. “I think he genuinely was trying to show it [Brighton] off to its best advantage,” says Powers. “But there was a bigger argument that these buildings were worth keeping.

“There was a hangover from the Victorian times that these buildings were stuck there and couldn’t be moved, but Piper is all about appreciating Brighton for what it was – in all its theatricality.”

Powers points out that at one point Sir Herbert Carden wanted to demolish all the buildings on Brighton seafront – “so it might have looked like Miami Beach” – but Piper and other artists believed the history of the city should be maintained.

Who was John Piper?

Alan Powers made the acquaintance of John Piper when the artist was still creating work. He reveals his impressions of the man:
“I met him a few times. Physically, he was remarkable. He was tall and very thin and had a narrow head. He kept his hair until late in his life.  Oddly, he even looked old as a young man. And then when he was old he looked quite young. He wore jeans and was rather hip and witty. 
“He would engage you in conversation – he wasn’t too grand. He and his wife worked very much in a team. They had a lovely conversational thing going on between them. However, they were usually terribly rude about everyone else. It got slightly too much at times – whoever you’d mention, they’d say 'Oh not him'".

John Piper’s Brighton Aquatints 
Prints and Drawings Gallery, Brighton Museum, Tuesday until June 3, Entry is free. For more information visit or call 03000 29 0900