Raymond Piper (1923 - 2007):
Renowned as a portrait painter, Raymond Piper will be most remembered for his botanical and book illustrations that spanned 60 years, as well as being a bright light in the artistic and cultural life of Northern Ireland.
Born in London in 1923, he was encouraged by his mother to take an interest in natural history when she stimulated an interest in flowers in their garden in Tufnell Park. The family moved to Belfast when he was six and he was educated at Skegoneill Public Elementary School, the Mercantile College (later Belfast High School) and Belfast College of Technology. As a boy, he enjoyed climbing Cavehill mountain above the city and collecting wild flowers. This became a happy hunting ground for him, leading to a life-long interest in studying, drawing, and reading about the natural world.
Piper was passionate about painting and attended evening classes at the Belfast College of Art, although he was largely self-taught. His father’s decision to send him to work in the shipyard led to a job as an apprentice marine engineer at Harland and Wolff where he worked during World War II. He was awarded a marine engineering junior trade scholarship while at the yard, but in any spare time, he drew sketches of his workmates in his small drawing books which he carried in his pocket.
He taught art at the Royal School, Dungannon, before deciding to become a full-time commercial artist in 1949. The following year his first one-man show was held at the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) Gallery in Belfast. Shortly after this he was awarded the first CEMA travelling scholarship to study art in Paris where he spent his days and nights sketching Parisian life.
Piper established a reputation for skilfully capturing the personalities of his portrait sitters. Among his subjects were Lords Mayor and High Sheriffs of Belfast, judges, vice-chancellors and celebrities from the artistic, broadcasting and sporting world. His portrait commissions included Lord Brookeborough, Sir Brian Faulkner and members of the cabinet. He also painted Lords Mayor of London, including Sir Cuthbert Ackroyd, Sir Bernard Waley-Cohen, and Sir Derek Hoare as well as Past Presidents of the Royal College of Physicians. The painting that gave him most pleasure was of the Comitia of the Royal College of Physicians for their 450th anniversary (1519-1969) which contained 120 portraits.
In 1947 Piper painted one of Ireland’s most outstanding naturalists and writers, Robert Lloyd Praeger, author of the classic work The Way That I Went (1937). At the sitting, 60 years separated the two men; Piper was 24 and Praeger had reached 84. He described him as “very kind, tolerant and understanding of youth.” A pencil portrait of the naturalist drawn by Piper appeared as a frontispiece in a new introduction which Piper wrote to the second edition of Praeger’s Natural History of Ireland published in 1972.
Keen to develop his interest in wild flowers in more depth, Piper joined the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club in 1946. During his membership he played an active role in many club activities, taking part in weekend excursions, serving twice as President (1971-72 and 1983-84) and was made an Honorary Member in 1990. It was through the field club that Piper first met the travel writer and actor Richard Hayward who signed him up to illustrate his discursive topographical series of books “This is Ireland” which produced five volumes between 1949 and 1964. The titles, in order of date publication, were: Leinster and the City of Dublin (1949), Ulster and the City of Belfast (1950), Connacht and the City of Galway, (1952), Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim & Roscommon (1955) and Munster and the City of Cork (1964).
During their research, often involving lengthy trips of up to three months for each of these books, Piper and Hayward drove thousands of miles all over the country, ticking off visits to more than 500 sites of historic importance. Piper created the colourful cover artwork for each of the volumes. His evocative half-tone pencil drawings portray an older Ireland, reflecting the countryside and built heritage. Through his loose-wristed style, he captured in a distinctive manner, street scenes, mountains and landscapes, archaeological monuments, cathedrals, abbeys, churches, castles, monasteries and buildings that have long since vanished. Collectively, Piper’s artwork for these books totals more than 360 sketches and remain a valuable record of the postwar period. His artistry and draughtsmanship produced a curious mixture of speedy impression and painstaking detail. His work was endorsed by the critics of the day. Reviewing the Leinster book for Truth, Sir Shane Leslie, described his sketches as “exquisite, minute, and accurate, and with the soft, dreamy character of silver-points drawn by fairy folk.”
Piper also collaborated with Hayward on two additional books, providing the cover and sketches for his anthology Belfast Through the Ages (1952) and the cover of Border Foray (1957). The latter book jacket featured a rich collection of caricatures of the mythological characters of Ireland that included scantily clad dancing girls alongside the Wilde Irishman, as well as an image of St Patrick whose face is modelled on Hayward’s. The two men became friends although their journeys around Ireland were not without their stormy moments. Asked once about how they got on, Piper replied: “We used to row like hell at times – as good friends do. But working with Richard Hayward was a great age of discovery for me as he instilled enormous enthusiasm for all Ireland’s attributes.”
Apart from his work on the Hayward travel books, Piper illustrated books by other authors. These included Old Belfast by Alfred Moore (1951), As I Roved Out by Cathal O’ Bryne (1958), The First of Trees by Robert Standish (1960) and two books by James Fairley: The Experienced Hunstman (1977) and An Irish Beast Book (1984).
It was while working on the final Hayward book, Munster the City of Cork, that Piper became fascinated with Ireland’s wild flowers, especially orchids. This book includes a two-page spread of the highlights of the flora of the Burren in County Clare. Over the next four decades, he studied and drew the various orchid species with precision, an activity that was to come to dominate his life. He was particularly interested in the limestone pavement of the Burren which boasts 22 species of orchid along with some enigmatic variants.
Piper became a champion of the Burren, developing a passion for it, bordering on infatuation. He visited the area regularly and for many years returned on annual pilgrimages. In 1968 he painted a suite of wild flowers that included mountain avens, twayblades, gentian and wild strawberry in oil on prepared boards. His original orchid drawings hang framed and protected under glass in the sitting-room of the Gregan’s Castle Hotel near Ballyvaughan in the Burren. During the early 1990s he was involved in a controversial campaign against the proposed building of an interpretative centre at Mullaghmore in the Burren National Park. It was an area he loved and he vigorously supported the Burren Action Group in its determination to overthrow the plans. He was worried about the consequences of the implementation of the project and wrote letters to the papers lobbying support from interest groups. After a nine-year battle, the decision to build the centre was turned down by An Bord Pleanála (The Irish Planning Board).
His quest for Irish orchids led to him quartering the ground from the glens of north Antrim to the bogs of west Kerry, and becoming known to some as “the orchid man.” His researches, artistic skill, and powers of disciplined close observation of orchid plant structure were recognised, and he was a recipient of numerous awards for his botanical work. In 1974 Piper’s orchid studies were exhibited in the natural history section of the British Museum and in the same year he was awarded the John Lindley silver-gilt medal by the Royal Horticultural Society, London, for botanical illustrations and research into the Irish Orchidaceae – it was the first time the medal had ever come to Ireland; the following year he was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London for botanical watercolour drawings and research into the Irish Orchidaceae. In 1986 he received the Beck’s Bier bursary for outstanding services to botanical illustration. An Academician of both the Royal Ulster and Royal Irish Academies, he was later elected honorary academician of the Royal Ulster Academy of Art, the Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, and the Ulster Watercolour Society. Other awards included a Royal Ulster Academy Gold Medal and the James Kennedy Memorial Award for Portraiture at the Royal Hibernian Academy. Stretching over a 50-year period were many exhibitions of his work. The Ulster Museum, Belfast, Ulster Arts Club, the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts, the Royal Dublin Society, and the Royal Hibernian Academy, amongst others, all exhibited his paintings. In 2000 he was awarded the honorary degree of MUniv by the Open University and in his acceptance speech he expressed his gratitude at being made “Master of the Universe.”
In 1987 the Blackstaff Press produced Piper’s Flowers, a limited edition with text by Charles Nelson that included five of his Irish orchid paintings. All 100 copies were sold within eight weeks. Following this success Blackstaff produced in 1994 his Three Irish Orchids, a limited edition portfolio of watercolour prints designed by Wendy Dunbar. To ensure the exclusivity of Three Irish Orchids, all plates were destroyed once the printing of the 125 sets of prints was completed.
Apart from his book illustrations, portrait painting and exhibitions, there were other sides to Piper’s work. He designed in the 1950s a series of long-playing record sleeves for Decca Records and wrote articles for The Countryman. In later years he lectured in art in evening classes at Belfast College of Art, and in a combined studies course at the University of Ulster.
He spent 14 years making studies of ballet dancers during live performances where he worked from the wings of the theatre squatting over a drawing board. The first sketches were made to capture the effects of light on the dancers of the Ballet Rambert in the Grand Opera House, Belfast in 1952. But his studies proper began with the English ballerina Margo Fonteyn in the rehearsal room of the Royal Ballet at Hammersmith where Sir Frederick Ashton and Alfred Rodrigues were taking a class for the rehearsal of the ballet Tiresias based on the Greek legend. Subsequently he made further studies of Fonteyn in various title roles such as Ondine with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, ending in 1966 with Rudolf Nureyev in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
A keen bibliophile and avid reader, Piper’s collection of rare books contained hundreds of works of flora, including many on orchids from all over the world. He was an admirer of the work of Charles Darwin and his collection included a Darwin first edition about the fertilisation of orchids. At the time of his death he was planning a book on Ireland’s orchid species which would be reproduced along with his own scientific commentary. He had crafted more than 200 watercolour studies, including enlarged microscopic drawings of diagnostic features, as well as subspecies and varieties from many parts of the country, but the book was never realised.
Collections of his work are held by leading institutions in both Ireland and Britain and much is in private hands. The Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast, named its Piper Bistro in his honour and displays his drawings of local celebrities. A gregarious personality with a wide circle of friends, he had a sharp sense of humour and never lost his English accent. His obituary in The Irish Times summed up his character: “Meeting him was a vivid experience – commotion, oddball comedy, a hurly-burly of ideas and information.”
A craftsman of exceptional artistic and technical skill, his contribution and commitment to the visual arts gained him a considerable reputation in Ireland, Britain and further afield. As well as being works of art in their own right, his paintings and drawings are uniquely important scientific, architectural and historical records.
In a Northern Ireland Arts Council Gallery exhibition catalogue of his orchid drawings in spring 1989, the natural history writer, Michael Viney, contributed an accompanying essay, “An Obsession with Orchids”, and wrote: “Setting out to paint all the Irish orchids, he is tantalised by nuances of form and colour that seem to break the rules of species and subspecies, hybrids and races … his paintings are maps of his life.”
|Born:||4 April 1923|
|Died:||13 December 2007|
Citizen Science: 150 years of the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club, (Ulster Museum Exhibition, spring 2013) Peter Crowther; Romancing Ireland: Richard Hayward 1892-1964 (Lilliput Press, 2014) Paul Clements; Burren Country, Travels through an Irish limestone landscape (Collins Press, 2011) Paul Clements; "The Piper and the Orchids", Ireland of the Welcomes, Vol. 48, No 4 July-August 1999, Alf McCreary; Book and Magazine Collector interview with Raymond Piper, March 2001, Paul Clements; "An Irishman's Diary," The Irish Times, 4 August, 2007, Paul Clements; obituary, The Guardian, September 27, 2007, Paul Clements; Irish Naturalists' Journal, 2007, Paul Hackney; 'Putting Kensington in the Picture', The Kensington News and West London Times, September 12, 1952.
© 2017 Ulster History Circle