John Armstrong (1893-1978)

The Embrace of Love, 1951 (oil on canvas) by John Armstrong
The Embrace of Love, 1951 (oil on canvas) by John Armstrong

The Bridgeman Artists’ Copyright Service (BACS) is delighted to welcome the Estate of the distinguished British 20th century artist John Armstrong.

Most art history books mention John Armstrong in the context of Unit One and the development of British abstraction in the 1930s, or else he is categorized as a surrealist. Yet Armstrong’s versatility makes him difficult to pigeonhole. He was a prolific designer for the theatre, film and industry – producing memorable work for the General Post Office and Imperial Chemical Industries, and designing a distinctive string of posters for Shell. He was a highly skilled mural painter of both private and public commissions and was a classical painter of considerable distinction, a clear-eyed observer of the human condition who felt impelled to warn mankind of its folly, particularly in the age of nuclear armament. As a result, he produced several remarkable series – the Battle, Icarus and the Tocsin paintings – all as relevant today as when they were first painted.

Royal Mail, 1935 (gouache on board) by John Armstrong
Royal Mail, 1935 (gouache on board) by John Armstrong

Essex, 1940 (tempera) by John Armstrong
Essex, 1940 (tempera) by John Armstrong

In the late 1920s recent developments in European art were increasingly on view in London including works by the artists Leger, Gris, Severini and de Chirico. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 ensured that the ‘30s were an uncertain period, embracing a renewed classicism and call to order, yet offered a diversity of influences to choose from.

With Paul Nash, Armstrong co-founded UNIT ONE, whose manifesto declared the need for ‘structural purpose’ in British art. In contrast to the better known pictures by Nash, Piper, and Sutherland, Armstrong’s finest ruin pictures were not painted in wartime, although they echo his experience in the first world war when he was a gunner in the Balkans and mentioned in dispatches for ‘battering down Byzantine churches’. ‘ They are a unique episode in the long story of British artists’ fascination with ruins.

Although Armstrong became increasing disabled by Parkinson’s disease in his later years, he continued to paint. At seventy-three he was elected an Associate member of the Royal Academy.

As well as being admired for his visionary paintings evoking unsettling times, and therefore relevant in an age of climate change and national debt, Armstrong is remarkable for being a supremely decorative artist with a deep understanding of colour, form and texture. 
 
Reference: John Armstrong: The Paintings by Andrew Lambirth, 2009

Vases, 1937 (tempera on gesso on board) by John Armstrong
Vases, 1937 (tempera on gesso on board) by John Armstrong


Back to top