Oriel Ross, 1907-1994
John Rutherford Armstrong, (1893–1973)
John Rutherford Armstrong

on the reverse " John Armstrong"

34 x 24 cm 13.1/4 x 9.3/4 in.


From the artist's estate


John Rutherford Armstrong, (1893–1973), painter, was born at 16 Priory Avenue, Hastings, Sussex, on 14 November 1893, the third son of the Revd William Alexander Armstrong and his wife, Emily Mary, née Cripps. Educated at St Paul's School, London (1907–12), he went on to read law briefly at St John's College, Oxford, before starting a short period of studies at the St John's Wood School of Art, London, just before, and then again for a short period after, the First World War. Although he was not in regular attendance there he came from a family who encouraged him to draw; it seems that, as an artist, he was largely self-educated. Having been brought up in the wooded downland countryside near West Dean in Sussex, Armstrong had developed an early interest in natural history that resurfaced much later in some of his meticulous depictions of plants and leaves. While at art school he developed his visual memory by close observation of his surroundings and built up an eclectic collection of photographs of works by Botticelli and Landseer, Masaccio and Millais. When he finally set about painting it was in a highly systematic way, with a clear idea in mind of what he wanted to achieve; he worked from the top left to the bottom right of a canvas without any preparatory drawing. During his war service as an officer in the Royal Field Artillery, the period he spent in Salonika fostered a lifelong interest in the painting and pottery of ancient Greece, a subject that appeared repeatedly in his later work.

As a successful soldier, mentioned in dispatches, Armstrong found his return to civilian life after the war difficult; during the early 1920s his life in London was beset by economic hardship. The turning point in his career came through his friendship with the celebrated actress Elsa Lanchester, later the wife of Charles Laughton, who at that period ran a bohemian late-night theatre club, the Cave of Harmony. His work there designing scenery and costumes and, for a while, running the café, gave him an income and led to commissions for further design work. These included the sets for Riverside Nights, presented by the impresario Nigel Playfair at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, in 1926; decorative paintings for Lillian and Samuel Courtauld in their home at 20 Portman Square; and a frieze for the ballroom at 1 Kensington Palace Gardens, the home of the politician George Strauss. Although all have been destroyed, they appear in photographic records to have been witty, stylish designs in a typically light-hearted but sophisticated art deco style.

At the same time Armstrong's easel paintings also began to achieve recognition. His first solo show at the Leicester Galleries in 1928 sold well and attracted thoughtful critical reviews. Still strongly influenced by his theatre work, it comprised an eclectic selection that incorporated art deco-ish clown and acrobatic subjects painted in light, high colour, and quieter, more complex works based on mythological scenes such as the rape of Persephone, whose style owes something to the Russian ballet and to Renaissance art. Armstrong, in short, had not yet found his own voice artistically, and the need to blend his concern with realism was as yet unreconciled with the poetic and imaginative aspects of his work. By the end of the decade, however, he had discovered the work of the Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio De Chirico, and in it the means of resolving these divergent strands. By the time Paul Nash came to select his influential grouping of British surrealist and abstract artists, Unit One, in 1933, Armstrong was among those chosen. About 1932 he married Benita Jaeger, with whom he had one son and one daughter. Following their divorce he married, as his second wife, Veronica Sibthorpe.

The economic slump during the 1930s forced Armstrong to continue earning his living as a designer, his most successful designs being perhaps the scenery and costumes for Frederick Ashton's ballet Façade (1931). He also designed costumes for film productions, notably those directed by Alexander Korda starring the recently married Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton. Among these were The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Rembrandt (1936), I Claudius (1936, unfinished), Things to Come (1938), and Hobson's Choice (1958). Like many of the best avant-garde artists of his generation Armstrong was commissioned by Jack Beddington of Shell-Mex to make paintings, including Artists Prefer Shell (1933) and Farmers Use Shell (1939), for Shell advertisements, notably posters. The first, and one of the most characteristic of these works, Everywhere you Go you can be Sure of Shell, comprises a witty, slightly sinister landscape, filled with anthropomorphic trees, at Newlands Corner, Merrow, Surrey.

Armstrong's design commissions took him away from painting, and it was not until 1938 that he regained confidence as a painter with an exhibition that year at the Lefevre Gallery. Surrealist influences on his work were successfully melded into a restrained, English variant of the style, as in, for example, Dreaming Head (1937), bought by the Tate Gallery. This style formed the basis of the work Armstrong undertook from 1940 onwards as an official war artist. His eye for the odd and incongruous combined with an unmistakable gentleness of feeling showed to effect in describing, on the one hand, the melancholy ruin of bombed buildings and, on the other, the cool beauty of industrial and manufacturing processes. During the war, spent near Dunmow in Essex, Armstrong evolved a new technique. He moved away from the smooth surfaces of his pre-war painting towards a method of working in which he covered the base surface of the canvas with a single colour, at first often black; on that foundation, using a square-headed brush, he built up the painting in short strokes of colour. He employed this distinctive, almost sculptural style up to his death in 1973. Initially, in his wartime paintings, this produced a rather sombre effect, though later, after the war was over, their mood began to lighten psychologically. Now living in Cornwall, Armstrong developed through the late 1940s and 1950s a series of ambitious symbolical paintings which, with titles such as The Storm, The Battle of Propaganda, and The Battle of Money, synthesized, to powerful effect, many of his interests in the theatre, architecture, religion, mythology, and politics. His sympathies, politically, were always to the left; in 1945 he designed a leaflet cover for the Labour Party, and he was an active campaigner for nuclear disarmament. In 1958 his Victory, in which he painted the imagined results of a nuclear holocaust, drew considerable attention when shown at the Royal Academy summer exhibition. Armstrong was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy in 1966.

Having achieved these major syntheses of his ideas and beliefs, Armstrong diversified in the last two decades of his working life to include still lifes (of mostly fruit, vegetables, and pottery), a small group of serene, abstract paintings, a series of paintings on the story of Icarus, and, finally, the tocsin series, in which a church bell appears to sound a warning of growing dangers and threats to civilization. Though it was not publicly successful this series may now be seen as the poetic and sensitive expression of his cultured mind, a view that became apparent to a wider audience only with the retrospective memorial exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy in 1975.

Armstrong was distinguished in appearance, with a thin, ascetic face. His reserved manner could at times mask his dry wit and gentle nature, as well as his awareness of the world and openness to new ideas. He was a man of physical and intellectual courage; although he was increasingly disabled by Parkinson's disease in the last ten years of his life, he continued to paint and travel. In the year before his death he went with his third wife, Annette Sylvia, formerly Heaton, whom he had married about 1956, to Italy for the first time—visiting Venice, Ravenna, Florence, and Arezzo. Armstrong died at his home, 40 Erpingham Road, Putney, on 19 May 1973. He was survived by his wife and their daughter. His work is held in numerous public collections, including the Tate collection, the Imperial War Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the National Museum and Gallery of Wales, Cardiff.

Nicholas Usherwood  DNB

Artist biography

Actress. Born Muriel Swinstead, she trained at the Royal College of Music and made her debut on stage at sixteen in Karel Capek's The Insect Play in 1923. In 1928 she appeared as Nature in Diaghilev 's Ballet Ode and then went to New York, where she appeared on Broadway and in revue and cabaret. She returned to London in 1931 and was in work throughout the 1930s and 40s, when she was a member of Lilian Baylis's Old Vic Company. She was married to the 8th Earl Poulett from 1935 to 1941.