Late in the 19th century, archaeologists digging in the Roman Forum discovered a lime kiln. It had been built to incinerate marble into an aggregate for the mortar for the new structures of the Middle Ages. Inside were statues of six Vestal Virgins, stashed together like firewood. Their arms had been snapped off.
The image came to mind as I read this excellent new book on the artist John Armstrong (1893-1975). In the 1930s he painted a series of ruined streets, with broken statues and broken monuments. They are bare and stark, and there is nothing like them in 20th-century British art. The first Armstrong I saw stopped me short: ‘Phoenix, 1938’, in Leeds City Art Gallery. When the guard turned I took a photograph, and still have the bright blue slide. I’d never heard of the painter.
In the 1930s he was best known as a designers of film sets and costumes for Alexander Korda, such as The Private Life of Henry VIII; Charles Laughton became a friend, and Armstrong painted the murals in his flat. Von Sternberg commissioned I, Claudius. ‘Have we any Vestal Virgins?’ ‘Yes’. ‘How many?’ ‘Six’ (The correct number, Armstrong recalled). ‘How are they dressed?’ ‘Chaste’. ‘That won’t do for me. I want 60 and I want them naked … and I want them on the set tomorrow morning.’
That was the same year as ‘Phoenix’. Lambirth writes interestingly on the relationship between film and art, noting that contemporary critics judged Armstrong’s work for the movies as a distraction from his talent. But ‘he never had any money except when he was working in film’, recalls his third wife, Annette.
Armstrong was a clergyman’s son, and looked like it: tall, thin, white-collared and witty. He was romantic, talkative and gentle. ‘He pursued his models like a lepidopterist’, recalled Elsa Lanchester, in whose Fitzrovia nightclub he made sandwiches for hungry artists and danced ‘like a bunch of thin slats on a wire’. In 1928 this de Chirico of Fitzrovia exhibited at the Leicester Galleries and sold half the pictures: ‘An original force in modern British painting’, wrote The Saturday Review. The Tate bought ‘Medusa’, surreal and classical at the same time. With Paul Nash, Armstrong co-founded UNIT ONE, whose manifesto declared the need for ‘structural purpose’ in British art. In contrast to the better known pictures by Nash, Piper, and Sutherland, Armstrong’s finest ruin pictures were not painted in wartime, although they echo his experience in the first world war when he was a gunner in the Balkans and mentioned in dispatches for ‘battering down Byzantine churches’. ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Ozymandias’ are premonitions of the late 1930s, with posters of dictators peeling from the walls. They are a unique episode in the long story of British artists’ fascination with ruins.
After the war Armstrong continued to design film sets, such as Hobson’s Choice. ‘Victory’ caused a sensation at the Royal Academy in 1958: a half-human, half-fried scarecrow as a survivor of nuclear war. He joined CND, and opposed the moon landing. In the late Sixties he developed Parkinson’s disease. He painted every day of the year, and six months after his right arm ceased to function he died.
Lambirth’s book is a biography and critical essay, followed by a catalogue raisonée by Annette, the widow, and the collector Jonathan Gibbs. It’s beautifully produced: the pages are crisp to turn. To Lambirth, biography and critique are inseparable; Armstrong was a man whose sensitivity and unfulfilled spirituality were expressed in art, limericks, and friendships alike: ‘He was essentially a painter of the human condition, of the emotions that activate us and account for the contradictions of our behaviour’. And he made a hell of a good sandwich.
Lambirth (well known in these pages for his art criticism) knows more about British painters since the Twenties than any man alive; he is able to explain ideas, people, clients, and the technical relationship of brush to canvas of a painter who studied at the Slade. Actors buy Armstrong’s pictures, he notes, and one can see why. The book justifies his plea for a retrospective at the Tate.