John Armstrong 1893-1973

Provenance

Lord and Lady Strauss (formerly Mrs Benita Armstrong)

Private Collection 

Exhibitions

1950 London, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Painters Progress (44)

2015, London, Piano Nobile, John Armstrong: Paintings 1938-1958; An Enchanted Distance, cat. no. 6, col. ill. p. 23.

Literature

A. Lambirth, A. Armstrong and J. Gibbs, John Armstrong: The Paintings, Catalogue Raisonne (London, 2009), cat. no. 309, colour illustration, p. 186. 

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.

The series of dancing classical figures and the architectural series which together dominated Armstrong’s 1945 exhibition reach their exquisite culmination in a duo of works from 1945, Faith, depicting Jacob wrestling the angel, and Madonna. Latent religious references evident in titles of the architectural series – Garden of Contemplation referencing the Garden of Eden or Gesthemane, Lament for Icarus suggestive of the lamentation over the body of Christ – are here made evident. Following the traditional motifs of Medieval and Renaissance altarpieces, the Madonna and Child are enthroned and flanked by two figures that gesture in a theatrical manner towards the seated pair. Although ostensibly a religious painting, Armstrong utilises the recognisable scene to consolidate his previous experimentations of the painted relationship between the human figure and its architectural setting. The stone niche of Gothic arches is a favoured setting for earlier works, whilst the gesturing attendants, far from saints, are Armstrong’s classical figures in the style of the Seaweed Gatherers. A relatively traditional triangular composition, articulated by gestural movement and the curving folds of robes, produces a painting of serenity and harmony.

Armstrong was not alone in adopting the Madonna and Child theme for its compositional and formal qualities. His Unit One colleagues Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore both explored the mother and child from the 1930s onwards, and in 1943 Moore was commissioned to carve a Madonna and Child for St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton. Moore explained that, “From very early on I have had an obsession with the Mother and Child theme. It has been a universal theme from the beginning of time…I suppose it could be explained as a “Mother” complex”. The Mother/Madonna and Child, an ostensibly traditional motif, was explored with an avant-garde approach for both the formal and intimate interaction of two figures, thus becoming a recurrent subject of inter-war British Modernism. Armstrong’s architectural series for his 1945 solo show is redolent with intimations towards the work of his contemporaries, particularly sculptural elements in the vein of both Moore and Hepworth, whose hollow sculptures interlaced with string appear repeatedly in monumental scale.

Madonna is a supremely beautiful example of Armstrong’s early “divisionist” style, and on a larger scale than his usual compact sizing. Set against a dark under-layer of paint, broad yet controlled touches of dry tempera paint cover the canvas in shimmering gradations of colour. As with Seaweed Gatherers, colour is uniform for distinct forms, so that each element of dense colour glows– touches of red delineate the arches of the architectural niche, whilst the Madonna is clad in luminous lavender and peacock blue robes. Monumental yet delicate, Madonna is elegant, vibrant and resplendent – Armstrong at the peak of “divisionist” prowess.