John Armstrong 1893-1973

Provenance

Purchased by Tom Fennemore (founder of Central Institute of Art and Design, to become Central Saint Martins) from Leicester Galleries, 1943 [Bentalls Furniture Depository label on reverse]

With Sothebys, Lot 461, 19th July 1989

Where purchased by current owner

Exhibitions

1943, London, Leicester Galleries, Summer, 2nd Edition (146)


2015, London, Piano Nobile, John Armstrong: Paintings 1938-1958; An Enchanted Distance, ex. cat. 

Literature

A. Lambirth, A. Armstrong and J. Gibbs, John Armstrong: The Paintings (London, 2009), cat. no. 260. 

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, and the National Galleries of Scotland.

During World War II John Armstrong was a salaried Official War Artist, serving on the Home Front and based in Tilty, Essex. His productions during the war primarily consisted of painting destroyed, ruined and abandoned buildings, very much in the same style as his famous Spanish Civil War paintings depicting deserted and crumbling houses and streets. Amongst his most famous and important World War II works are 'Coggeshall Church, Essex', 1940; Tate, and 'A Farm in Wales', 1940; National Museum of Wales. It was during WWII that Armstrong began to experiment with anthropomorphic, shifting forms, frequently featuring marine-life, amalgamating the organic and inorganic, the living and the dead, flora, fauna and human.

'Sea-Piece' is one of Armstrong's outstanding early anthropomorphic paintings, the high-point of a handful of works painted in 1943/44 of fish and shells in barren landscapes. In 'Sea-Piece', an extraordinary pink shell covered in protruding tentacles and with concave opening facing the viewer lies next to a blue and white fish. All sense of perspective and scale is distorted. The fish and shell are bizarrely the same size, yet appear huge, particularly compared to the tiny shell to the bottom right of the painting. The duo lie on a sandy cliff, apparently being cleaved apart, and a desert-like barren landscape appears below - but how far below? These sea objects seems supremely out of place, washed ashore in a barren, rocky landscape. Beached and stranded, this enigmatic pairing nonetheless seem monumental, significant, meaningful.

The quality of the light in 'Sea-Piece' renders it amongst Armstrong's finest marine works. The yellows and blues in the painting seem to emanate light, glowing with vibrant luminosity. This resplendent light quality results from Armstrong's experimentation with technique. 'Sea-Piece' is a unique example in Armstrong's oeuvre of encompassing two techniques, both the earlier cross-hatching in the clouds which dominated his more stylised, design-like classical works in the 1930s, as well as the patchwork effect in the cliffs, shell and fish which points towards his highly idiosyncratic 'divisionist' technique of the second half of the 1940s. Touches of paint invigorate the surface of 'Sea-Piece', expertly handled throughout the curves and subsequent shadows of the concave shell and convex fish. The surface of the canvas seems to shimmer with a tessellating, chalky texture.

The mysteries of the underwater world and the coastal landscape frequently featured in British Surrealist imagery. Armstrong’s turn to marine life to uncover surreal, enigmatic forms was paralleled in the work of his Unit One colleagues, Paul Nash and Edward Wadsworth. From the bleak coastlines of Dymchurch and Rye to the decaying Victorian seaside town of Swanage to the French coastal town of Toulon, the sea held an insatiable appeal for Paul Nash. During the 1930s Paul Nash and fellow Surrealist Eileen Agar travelled the Dorset coastline, cameras in hand, photographing coastal ephemera and beach debris. Experimenting with camera angles and framing devices, Nash and Agar explored the disconcerting effect of unexpected cropping and the disjuncture of inexplicable angles. Wadworth’s harbour scenes of the late 1930s and 1940s, likewise play with scale, perspective and unexpected juxtapositions of beach objects – fish, lobsters, starfish, buoys, ropes and anchors.