A new exhibition at Penlee House Gallery & Museum in Penzance celebrates the diverse range of work produced over the lifetime of this intriguing artist. ‘John Armstrong: Dream & Reality’ runs from 16 September to 18 November and features over 70 paintings, many of them on loan from national art organisations. The first major survey of his work since 1975, it highlights John Armstrong’s extraordinary and colourful life that encompassed both art and design, film and fashion.
John Armstrong was born in 1893. He studied briefly at the St John’s Wood School of Art but was essentially self-taught. His first one-man exhibition in 1928 established him in avant-garde artistic circles, including that of Unit One with Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash and others. The paintings from this time reflect both his understanding of French Cubist and Surrealist art and also his considerable involvement in theatre and film design. In this same period, he designed the original sets for the Royal Ballet ‘Façade’ and the costumes for ten of Alexander Korda’s epic films.
Penlee House Director and exhibition organiser, Louise Connell says: “John Armstrong was at the heart of Twentieth Century British art and design and this exhibition will come as a revelation for many people who may be unware of his important contribution. His influence was present in costume designs for much-loved classic films such as ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ and ‘Rembrandt’, to classically-inspired, surreal and abstract compositions. He was also an artist of strong political convictions, which are reflected in his later works.”
After working as an Official War Artist from 1939 – 45, Armstrong embarked on a series of ambitious and successful figure compositions that took on conventional ideas and beliefs with a mixture of ironic wit and personal symbolism. He moved to the Lamorna Valley in West Cornwall in 1946 and, inspired by the lush landscape, his iconic paintings of feathers and leaf forms appear to take on a life and personality of their own. It was also a period of personal success, leading to the selection of one of his paintings ‘Storm’ for the Arts Council Festival of Britain exhibition in 1951.
In 1955, he left Cornwall, eventually moving to London. In 1958, he was one of many artists who signed a letter protesting to the Prime Minister and Ambassadors of the USA and Soviet Union against nuclear warfare. His work continued with its prophetic motifs, including his ‘Tocsin’ series, symbolising the bell that sounds alarm at mankind’s folly. Later works became more abstract and minimalist in form.