Liss Llewellyn Fine Art - 20th Century British Art

John Armstrong (1893-1973)   BIOGRAPHY

Studies for Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, Surrey, 1961
Unframed (ref: 5358)

Gouache on paper, six panels,
two 21 x 17.8 cm (8 1/4 x 7 in.)
two11.7 x 31.3 cm (4 5/8 x 12 3/8 in.)
two 21 x 34.5 cm (8 1/4 x 13 1/2 in.)


Provenance: The Artist’s Estate
Literature: Andrew Lambirth, John Armstrong, Philip Wilson Publishers, 2009, p.224;
British Murals and Decorative Painting 1920-1960, Sansom & Co, 2013, pp.276-289

In 1961, Armstrong received his last mural commission to decorate a reception area in the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, Surrey. The whole scheme took him two years to paint on canvas panels, squared up from small oil-on-card designs. The mural was subsequently destroyed, but the designs remain to demonstrate the humour and vitality, the inventiveness and visual wit, that Armstrong brought to their conception.
Entitled The Fantastic Park, the subject resembles one of the mythical settings from P.L.Travers’ Mary Poppins books, where normal rules don’t apply, and anything can happen (and probably will). The bright colours (sap green, scarlet, mauve) add to the air of celebration and unreality, and Armstrong subverts the usual park activities, with
children riding on the lake on real swans, regaled by a trombonist in a busby, up to his thighs in water.
Armstrong wrote a detailed commentary on the composition: ‘Bandsmen and children everywhere, that is the keynote of the Park. The bandstand is too small, it will hold only the conductor and the big drum. The rest of the band sit here and there wherever they feel disposed, with a kind of stereophonic effect.’ Besides the P.L.Travers reference, there’s a Dylan Thomas-ish Under Milk Wood feeling to the events. A little girl brings goldfish for her grandfather to catch. ‘He has been fishing all morning,’ wrote Armstrong, ‘and has had no luck. Her aunts are also bringing the stuffed fish off the chimney-piece.’ Frivolity meets anarchy in mutual admiration: there’s a Stanley Spencer-ish note to the festivities, a breath of unexpected love among the participants. Armstrong’s text concludes: ‘On the right a bandsman gives up and wipes his forehead. He has got a pint from somewhere.... The lake mermaid has come out to have a better view and has found a boy-friend. On a seat the poet and his muse meditate.’ (Andrew Lambirth, British Murals & Decorative Painting 1920-1960, Sansom & Co, 2013, pp.286-87)

John Armstrong (1893-1973)

Painter of imaginative and classical subjects in oil, tempera and gouache; mural painter; designer of film and stage sets; book illustrator and advertising designer. He was born in Hastings, Sussex. After Oxford University, Armstrong studied at St John's Wood School of Art, 1913-14, then after service in the Army in World War I returned to St John's Wood briefly. He held his first one-man show at the Leicester Galleries in 1928. In 1933 he became a member of Unit One, after which his work took on a surrealist character. In the 1930s Armstrong worked as a designer for theatre and film, including the first performance of the ballet Façade and several films made by Sir Alexander Korda. He also did work for Shell-Mex and ICI. During World War II Armstrong was an Official War Artist. For the Festival of Britain 1951, he was commissioned to produce The Storm, and exhibited extensively at the RA from that year. He painted a ceiling for the Council Chamber, Bristol, in 1955 and six years later a mural for the Royal Marsden Hospital, at Sutton, Surrey. Armstrong had strong left-wing political convictions and from the time of the Spanish Civil War, when he painted Pro Patria, his pictures occasionally reflected his views. Symbolism is also a feature of his work. Armstrong's pictures are fastidiously painted in muted colours and reflect his own dry wit and gentle nature. Along with John Banting, he is one of only a handful of British artists whose oeuvre can be correctly described as surrealist. The RA held a memorial exhibition in 1975. He lived in London.

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