There are three surviving letters from the sculptor Michael Piper to Ruth Borchard, dating from early 1964, written on air-mail paper, simply addressed from ‘M. Piper, Leros, Greece’. He wrote:
‘I live here most of the time now, making excursions to Europe & England for contacts and exhibitions. I am sending you a drawing – I do not paint at all & anyway no self-portrait exists of me in sculpture.’
Michael Piper’s self-portrait was made when the artist, who was born in Nottingham, was around forty-three. There is a near-contemporary description of him in the Guardian newspaper (by John Dalton, October 19th 1962), at a time when he was making an eighteen-foot high, welded copper-and-steel sculpture – an abstraction of a shell-and-sail form – ‘in the great gantry studio of Loughborough College of Art… Looking a bit like Michelangelo and a bit like [Victor] Pasmore – but over six sinewy feet – he went from the Royal College to Greece for three weeks [in 1953] and stayed three years.’ Piper was back on the island of Leros for a lengthy stay, when Ruth contacted him.
His rather Giacometti-like self-portrait is drawn with calligraphic terseness. The spectator gets a sense of the artist’s ‘sinewy’ tallness – evoked partly through the drawing of the long neck. His right eye has come out bolder and sharper than the left eye; the mouth is also especially boldly drawn. The face’s dense, variegated networking of lines hints that the artist is inwardly wrestling with himself. Yet the overall structure of head, neck and shoulders seems to suggest that here is someone proud, sensitive and self-assured. The scurrying lines around the torso and arms are literally indecipherable, but they evoke the dynamics of the artist at work, gesturing with brush and pen.
Michael Piper studied economics and philosophy at Queen’s College, Oxford in 1939 but this was interrupted by wartime service in the Royal Artillery in Cyprus, Egypt and India from 1940-5. He returned to Oxford in 1946 to complete his degree, and from 1949-52 studied sculpture at the Royal College of Art. In 1971, he settled in Sweden with his Swedish second wife, Sun Axelsson, but Greece remained, until his death in 1997, a second home.
In 1991, A Lemon in the Ashes; Poems of Love and Anger by Michael Piper was published (in English) in Stockholm, with his own spidery ink drawings of bemused, bewildered, resigned and irate human figures.