John Armstrong 1893-1973

Provenance

Lefevre Gallery, where purchased by Major Maurice and Mrs Ann Cooke in 1947

Private Collection

Exhibitions

1945 London, Lefevre Gallery, Recent Paintings by John Armstrong and Sine Mackinnon (1)

2015, London, Piano Nobile, John Armstrong: Paintings 1938-1958; An Enchanted Distance, cat. no. 3, col. ill. p. 17.

Literature

A. Lambirth, A. Armstrong and J. Gibbs, John Armstrong: The Paintings, Catalogue Raisonne (London, 2009), cat. no. 265.

John 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.

1944 marked the start of Armstrong’s experimentation with adopting the “divisionism” technique in tempera, and he developed a sustained and highly individual method. Seaweed Gatherers represents an early product of his brick-like brushwork. The practice has been described with various terminology: in reviews at the time it was simultaneously compared to mosaics (Reynolds News), although Armstrong disliked this description, sand-paper (The Times), pointillism (New Statesman and Nation) and lozenges (Studio). Armstrong developed this technique by first applying a layer of dark paint and then, using a square-headed brush, covering the surface with quite broad, smooth, regulated dabs of paint.

Touches of paint invigorate the surface of Seaweed Gatherers, vitalising it with a quivering vibrancy. Strokes of blue and yellow form the sky, whilst delicate blocks of single shades constitute each seaweed gathering figure in yellow, cream, pink and brown. The paint itself contributes to the movement within the composition, underlying the sinuous curves of the classical, monumental figures of the seaweed gatherers who seem suspended in an elegant dance. The sinuous folds of the gatherers’ robes, realised in delicate shading belying the complexity of the “divisionism”, echo the shape of the kelp-like seaweed held up for our appreciation by the main figure.

In an extended poem, Armstrong ruminates on the mysteries of marine organisms, and it is particularly seaweed that dominates: “All is possessed by the slow fingered weed”. Experiencing the sea from a fish’s eye-view, he continues:

Now only loose weed drifts like a bunch of ribbons;
O the richness of the weed, velvet some, dark red,
Some pleasant green with gold sap in their veins,
O sophisticated lobes, some ghosts,
Swirling with the purity of white linen;
Sway in green dreams to the rhythm of the weed.