Reverend William Alexander Armstrong was born in 1893. A man of fine intellect and strong convictions. Not long after their third son's birth, the Armstrong family moved to West Dean near Goodwood. It was in this small Sussex village that he spent his formative Armstrong was born on November 14, 1893, in Hastings, Sussex, the third son of a parson, the years. Here began his love of the countryside and of nature which was to emerge during and after the thirties in one strand of his work, the imaginative yet meticulous depiction of plants and leaves. His formal education, on the other hand, appears to have had very little positive effect in bringing out his latent artistic gifts. He showed no special aptitude for art at St. Paul's School between 1907 and 1912. His interest in Greek Mythology, from which source he drew many themes as a painter, began at a early age at home. His early pictures include such titles as The Rape of Helen, Cupid and Psyche, Psyche on the Styx; among his later themes were Apollo and the Muses and the recurrent Icarus.
He was an unenthusiastic student of law at St. John's Collage, Oxford; and his subsequent attendance at St. John's Wood School of Art both before and after the 1914-1918 war was said to be irregular. He spent more time walking around, looking at people and staring at things, than in drawing. Possibly he was cultivating his visual memory. When he did draw, he was able to begin at the top left hand side and continue steadily and systematically until he had finished at the bottom right hand side. Like Stanley Spencer, who painted in an equally systematic way, he was capable of forming a clear mental picture of what he wished to set down, before he started. In later life this gift enabled him largely to dispense with preparatory or working drawings before painting.
When the First World War broke out Armstrong enlisted early and became an officer in the Royal Field Artillery. He ended the war in Salonika and it is probable that this experience stimulated his interest in the painting and pottery of Ancient Greece. Armstrong was more obviously successful as a soldier than as a student. He was mentioned in despatches and was reputed to have been extremely smart in his dress. He remained fastidious about his appearance in civilian life even if in London in the early twenties his uniform was that of the down-and-out artist. The uniform was not part of a pose. The fact was that in those years he was extremely poor.
His road to recognition began to some extent with his close friendship with Miss Elsa Lanchester. Her face appears again and again in Armstrong's early pictures. It was at this time that Armstrong began to help with theatre scenery, designing, costumes and envelope-addressing. He also wrote a play called The Brigand's Daughter which was a great success. Armstrong also made designs for a sort of highbrow revue at the Hotel Metropole called Midnight Follies. By this time, though, Armstrong was gaining commissions to decorate interiors. Lillian Courtauld, the wife of Samuel Courtauld, arranged that he should decorate their home at 20 Portman Square, now the Courtauld Institute.
By 1928, Armstrong's easel paintings were beginning to sell buyers included Lord Howard de Walden, Captain Desmond Coke and Eddie Marsh. In January 1928, at his first one man show at the Leicester Galleries Armstrong sold more than half his thirty-six exhibits, mostly paintings in tempera. At this time Armstrong was still searching for his identity as a painter, it seems that he was hiding behind the theatrical mask, this idea is enhanced by a critic of his day, who wrote in the “Times” that he doubted whether the conventions of theatrical design so evident in Armstrong's work were sufficient for pictorial representation in the art of painting.
In 1932 Armstrong met Benita Jaeger who was to prove a true friend throughout his life and whom he married. The young couple were frequently in the company of Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton who had married in about 1930 and who acted together in the Private Life of Henry VIII, 1933 and Rembrandt, 1936, for which Armstrong designed the costumes. The films were produced by Alexander Korda and altogether Armstrong worked on eight Korda films between 1933 and 1937. It is clear, however, that designing costumes for films, which took up much of Armstrong's time, failed to satisfy his creative energies or to provide him with the intellectual stimulus his nature required.
In 1938 his exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery, revealed a new sense of confidence in his work, a contributing factor to this is presumed to have been his second wife, Veronica Lushington. It was at this exhibition that The Tate bought their first Armstrong picture The Dreaming Head. Possibly the growing strength of the Surrealist Movement had given support to an artist temperamentally against straight realism. The International Surrealist Exhibition had been in London in 1936 and although Armstrong was not one of the artists on the committee his work became increasingly Surrealist in character.
By this time Armstrong had been made official war artist. In 1938 he had moved to Essex, near Dunmow. One of his first paintings commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee was painting of a bombed church tower at Coggeshall. Essex, 1940.
It was during the forties that Armstrong developed a new technique. He would cover the surface with one single colour. He then built up the painting brick by brick as it were, using short strokes of colour, with a square-headed Courbet brush which allowed the original ground to show in between as part of the finished surface. The base colour he first used seems to have been black and this well expressed the sombre mood of the war.
Armstrong was a active campaigner against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. His political sympathies laid with the labour party and in 1945 he designed a cover for a leaflet in the election campaign. In 1955 he painted the ceiling of the Bristol Council Chamber. His marriage had ended and in the following year he met his third wife Annette Heaton. They lived in London where their daughter Catherine was born in 1959. His painting Victory, which imagined the results of a nuclear holocaust, attracted considerable attention at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1958, and in 1966 he became a Royal Academician. In 1972 his wife Annette took him to Italy, visiting Venice, Ravenna, Florence and Arezzo which he had never done before. He died on 19 May 1973, remembered by his friends as an exceptionally interesting man, occasionally reserved but who combined to the last considerable awareness and openness to new ideas, with a dry wit and a gentle nature.
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