An exhibition at the Atkinson Art Gallery, Southport, 3rd June to 3rd September, 2017

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Recent years have seen something of a revival of interest in artists associated with the British Surrealist Movement. Iíve seen group exhibitions in Kendal, Leeds, Hull, and elsewhere, and several books have been published which outline the development of surrealist ideas and their influences on British painters and poets in the 1930s and beyond.

The difficulty in trying to put all the artists concerned into a group bag is that they often donít fit comfortably inside it. Itís possible to select examples of their work to suit the requirements of a show that wants to assert the existence of a group or movement, but looking at a wider range of an individual artistís work often indicates that they had much broader aims and achievements than can be contained in a group format.

John Armstrong is a case in point. He was born in Hastings in 1893. His father was a clergyman. Armstrong studied law at Oxford, but eventually decided to switch to art and enrolled at St Johnís Wood Art School. He served with distinction in the First World War, and after the war experienced a period of financial hardship before he began to establish himself as an artist.

He worked on theatre designs, and was also employed by the wealthy Samuel Courtauld to decorate a room in his London home. Armstrong additionally did a frieze for a ballroom in Kensington. He was also producing his own paintings while carrying out what might be classified as commercial work, and he had a successful solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1928.

In 1933 he joined the short-lived Unit One, which had been founded by Paul Nash to promote abstract and surrealist work in Britain. The group held just a single exhibition, with Armstrong alongside Edward Burra, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, and Edward Wadsworth. If nothing else, this showed that his work was considered sufficiently adventurous, and of admirable quality, by his contemporaries who were among the leading young moderns of the day. In 1936 he was one of the British artists included in the famous Surrealist art exhibition in London.

Itís doubtful if Armstrong at that time was earning enough from experimental work to support himself, and he continued to take on commissions for commercial art. He did posters for Shell, and for the Post Office. Examples can be seen in the exhibition and those for the postal service are particularly attractive. They attract attention, like a poster should.

Armstrong was active in the theatrical and film worlds, designing sets and costumes for both. His friendship with Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester led to him being employed on several films, including Rembrandt. Again, there are photographic examples on display, and a short video that is being shown in one of the galleries has clips from a couple of the Laughton films, along with brief appearances by Armstrong and people who knew him. Anyone interested in seeing what Armstrong did for Laughton and Lanchester can easily turn up a copy of Rembrandt on YouTube.

He was employed as a war artist during the Second World War, painted murals for various establishments, including the City Hall in Bristol, in the post-war years, and was one of the artists who produced pictures for the 1951 Festival of Britain. In later years he was affected by Parkinsonís Disease, and though he continued painting he inevitably fell from view when it came to the art scene generally. He died in 1973.

It perhaps needs to be considered that Itís more than likely that the  rise of art movements like the ďkitchen sink schoolď, ďabstract expressionismĒ, and ďPop ArtĒ, would have drawn attention away from someone like Armstrong, as they did from so many British artists of the 1940s and 1950s. Armstrongís careful and craftsmanlike canvases would not have been looked at too kindly by painters and critics with a need to promote more boisterous and strikingly colourful paintings. 

There are surrealist influences in some of Armstrongís paintings, though if I had to categorise him I think I would be more inclined to see him as belonging somewhere in the Neo-Romantic movement of the 1930s and 1940s in Britain. There were, of course, surrealist ideas incorporated into the work of more than one member of that group, though I often see British surrealism has having a more whimsical side to it than what was produced in France, Spain, and elsewhere.

There has always been an argument along the lines of the British not really needing surrealism. They had their own traditions, as evinced by Gothic novels, Lewis Carroll, ghost stories, fantasy tales, nonsense rhymes, and such things. And itís true that at least some of the painters classed as Neo-Romantics went back to William Blake, Christopher Smart, and Samuel Palmer for influences. There is nothing wrong with doing that and combining it with elements of surrealist practices as seen in paintings coming from abroad. Armstrong showed evidence of incorporating ideas from de Chirico in his work.

He did make social and political comments in certain of his paintings. A large canvas, The Storm, can be read allegorically as forecasting a catastrophe of some sort. And the tersely titled Victory was said to be a bleak comment on the likely effects of a nuclear war. Armstrong, with his experiences of two World Wars, was concerned to speak out for peace in the world rather than a world in pieces. The proliferation of nuclear weapons especially bothered him.

I donít want to overstress any obvious political commitment in Armstrongís work. It was clearly something he felt the need to do, but it should be seen alongside everything else he created. The exhibition includes samples of his advertising work, his designs for film and theatre productions, his efforts as a war artist, and his original paintings, in both quasi-surreal/Neo-Romantic and straightforward styles. He was an excellent draughtsman and painted some good portraits.

The exhibition travels to the Penlee House Gallery in Penzance, where it will be shown from September 16th to November 18th, 2017.  Itís a stimulating show and rightly draws attention to  someone who, if not a major artist, was often a very good one. It also has a small selection of paintings by several of his contemporaries, including Roland Penrose, Tristram Hillier, and Edward Wadsworth. I was a little disappointed that a catalogue does not appear to have been published to accompany the exhibition. We need to know more about John Armstrong and his work.