John Armstrong 1893-1973


Private Collection


1945 London, Lefevre Gallery, Recent Paintings by John Armstrong and Sine Mackinnon (35)

2015, London, Piano Nobile, John Armstrong: Paintings 1938-1958; An Enchanted Distance, cat. no. 5, col. ill. p. 21.


A. Lambirth, A. Armstrong and J. Gibbs, John Armstrong: The Paintings, Catalogue Raisonne (London, 2009), cat. no. 297, colour illustration, p. 184

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, and the National Gallery of Australia.

After its closure during the war, Lefevre re-opened in 1945, and John Armstrong had his first exhibition in seven years in early July 1945. Works in his “divisionist” style dominated the show, a veritable array of pulsating canvases, populated by monumental, classical figures in the guise of Seaweed Gatherers and Bacchanale, often with titles suggesting ancient mythological sources. A series of ten, perhaps eleven, paintings in the exhibition, most of which are now in public collections, featured such figures, draped in flowing robes, wandering amidst classical buildings. These elegant figures are dwarfed by towering, broad open apses, interspersed with niches and arches, and supported by simple Doric columns, whilst extended arcades lead back with plunging perspective. The complex compositions of these paintings and the fascination with the interaction between painting, sculpture and architecture reveal the influence of Giorgio di Chirico, another artist who was surreal without being Surrealist.

In Figure in Contemplation a lone man, deep in thought - perhaps Aristotle’s contemplative man who has achieved pure rational thought - walks in a deserted piazza. All sense of scale and perspective is distorted, emphasising the huge chasm of space engulfing the solitary philosopher. The composition of architectural elements, with dramatically cropped structures in the foreground framing the towering central apse, is compositionally exquisitely surreal, whilst the presence of one diminutive figure heightens the uncanny emptiness of the painting. Perhaps the melancholic absence in Figure in Contemplation reflects an international meditation on sacrifice and loss, legacies of war.

Figure in Contemplation, and indeed the series as a whole, seems an extended rumination on the intrinsic connection between man and architecture - the innate need of man for shelter and the effect of a stimulating environment upon its inhabitants. Modernist architecture, and particularly his admiration for his Unit One colleague Wells Coates, was intrinsic to Armstrong’s turn to Surrealism: writing in the Unit One catalogue, Armstrong described his realisation “that art had always to have…a lift by the scruff of the neck from architecture in order to achieve anything”. In an undated letter, Armstrong describes to the recipient the beginnings of architecture in the ancient world: “Some man by looking at and appreciating a tree invited the first column. In a treeless world neither the Parthenon or Salisbury cathedral would have been built.” Such a story of the origins of architecture as founded upon the human form derives directly from Roman architectural theorist Vitruvius, whom Armstrong would inevitably have studied during his school days. The architectural series speaks of the interconnectivity of the organic, inorganic and human, a pantheistic union. The quintessential features of classical architecture – symmetry, repetition, harmony and balance – are echoed in the balance of delicate pastel colours applied in restrained blocks of paint in “divisionist” style