20 1/2 x 30 1/2 in
Lefevre Gallery, where purchased by Major Maurice and Mrs Ann Cooke in 1947
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.
A. Lambirth, A. Armstrong and J. Gibbs, John Armstrong: The Paintings, Catalogue Raisonne (London, 2009), cat. no. 265.
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.