John Armstrong 1893-1973


Duncan MacDonald

Private Collection


1947 London, Lefevre Gallery, New Paintings by John Armstrong (10)

2015, London, Piano Nobile, John Armstrong: Paintings 1938-1958; An Enchanted Distance, cat. no. 9, col. ill. p. 29.


'Perspex's choice for the picture of the Month', Apollo, May 1947

A. Lambirth, A. Armstrong and J. Gibbs, John Armstrong: The Paintings, Catalogue Raisonne (London, 2009), cat. no. 337, colour illustration p. 189. 

ohn Armstrong was born in 1893 in Hastings. He studied at St. John’s College, Oxford, 1912-13, and then at St. John’s Wood School of Art 1913-14. During the war he served in the Royal Field Artillery 1914-19, before briefly returning to St. John’s Wood School. He began his professional career as a theatre designer in London, gaining important patrons including Lillian and Samuel Courtauld, who commissioned Armstrong to decorate a room in their Portman Square home. His first solo exhibition was at the Leicester Galleries in 1928. In 1933 he joined Unit One alongside Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, Edward Burra, Henry Moore, Edward Wadsworth, John Bigge and Barbara Hepworth, with whom he exhibited at the Unit One exhibition. From the early 1930s onwards his work became Surrealist in style – uncanny, romantically dream-like and heavily imbued with symbolism. Armstrong died in 1973. His work is held in numerous international public collections including the Tate, the Imperial War Museum, the National Galleries of Scotland, the National Gallery of Australia, MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Pompidou.

The feathers that populated Armstrong’s output in 1946 transformed in the following year into anthropomorphic leaves, veined, brittle and frequently disintegrating. Forming a particularly disquieting series that hung in the 1947 Lefevre show alongside the feather works, these so-called ‘Embrace’ paintings are set in the depths of night in otherworldly, barren, cratered landscapes. Dusky pink and brown leaf forms emerge from inky blue night skies, yet shadows eerily fall across the paintings.

Passion of the Inanimate is the most starkly powerful of the ‘Embrace’ series. A lone leaf-feather hybrid stands isolated in rocky terrain. The intimacy of the confrontation is striking. The leaf fills the space, staring us down in an unapologetic encounter. The title contains an impossible paradox - how can an inanimate leaf experience any emotion, let alone one as forceful as passion? The realisation of seemingly incompatible elements into the imagery of a leaf possessing such evidently human characteristics is decidedly uncanny. Freud’s essay on The Uncanny was published in 1919, and was of immense significance to the Surrealists. In Passion of the Inanimate uncanny transgressions are made manifest. The leaf occupies a liminal space between organic and inorganic, living and dead, real and imagined, part object (leaf) and whole (tree) – an image that is hauntingly beautiful.

The influence of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s fashionable 1917 zoological tract, On Growth and Form, which famously inspired Richard Hamilton’s 1951 eponymous Festival of Britain installation, is strongly felt. D’Arcy Thompson opens On Growth and Form arguing that the “search for differences or fundamental contrasts between the phenomena of organic and inorganic, of animate and inanimate things, has occupied many men’s minds…and the contrasts are apt to loom too large”. D’Arcy Thompson’s embrace of an all-encompassing, inter-connected natural environment tapped into a certain zeitgeist, of which Armstrong was an avid proponent.