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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

The Open Door

Joanne Farley-Webb

[ Artwork in Focus, Stories )

Gallery volunteer Joanne Farley-Webb reflects on the life and art of Surrealist artist John Armstrong.

‘As a child’ Armstrong wrote, ‘I loved everything painted because it was painted and not real’.

And there upon the wall was an open door.

‘The Open Door’ was painted in 1930. At first glance it’s easy to think that the door opens up to another world like C.S.Lewis’s infamous wardrobe door to Narnia or Shambhala the mythical kingdom of Tibetan Buddhism, said to exist somewhere between the Himalayas and the Gobi Desert. Look a little closer and you will see that it is actually the same landscape and more like a forgotten theatre set or part of an ancient ruin.

It’s hard not to feel your imaginarium making lucid dreamlike connections and wondering ‘Where does the door go?’

A white wooden door opens onto a rocky landscape and a blue sky with white clouds and the moon full and white to the top left

John Armstrong, The Open Door, 1930, Oil on canvas, On Loan from a Private Collection (2004), © The Estate of the Artist/BACS

Perhaps it is the full moon and the twilight lunar lit clouds which is why it feels mystical in nature? The door to the mind experiencing meditation, the dreamer, Conscious Collective or a portal to the intelligent intangible?

His work had never really been on my radar, even though I love Surrealism. John’s lifetime of painterly labour seemed to have passed me by until one day at Pallant House Gallery in that magical unexpected room up the wooden stairs with the four poster bed.

The dreaming room was dedicated to all my favourite creative medicine makers such as Salvador Dali, Leonora Carrington, Eileen Agar and Man Ray to mention a few.

My favourite works of Armstrongs, the ones that truly resonate with my inner being are the painted natural forms like Zen leaves and feathers composed in such a way that they look like flowing angelic sentient lifeforms gliding through contemplative landscapes.

A group pf different colour feathers painted standing upright on their quills

John Armstrong, Feathers Conclave, 1946, Tempera on board, On Loan from a Private Collection (2016), © The Estate of the Artist/BACS

’The passion of the inanimate’ painted in 1947 is an example of his mesmerizing anthropomorphic symbology.

This body of work reminds of Leonora Carrington’s paintings. I always felt as though she could see behind the veil as well, capturing the multiverse and inter dimensional planes like a snapshot on the canvas.

For me there is a peacefulness and a torment at the same time. One foot planted on the earth, the other in a heavenly realm along with a kind of strange war torn duality, confrontation or longing loneliness.

A liminal space perhaps?

Poster with a cream coloured border with the text 'You can be sure of Shell' on top of poster and 'Artists prefer Shell' on the bottom, in the middle on a blue background is a white goblet to the left with a black horse figure on it and a large white conch shell in the centre of the image and a black artist's palette behind it

John Armstrong, Artists Prefer Shell poster, 1933, Lithograph on Paper, Presented by Miss Gillian Whaite (1996), © The Estate of the Artist/BACS

Born in Hastings, Sussex in 1893 John Rutherford Armstrong ARA was a British artist, solider and ceramicist for Wedgewood and Claris Cliff. He was also a muralist, created commercial posters for Shell, illustrated books and designed costumes and sets for film and theatre productions. John was enrolled at St John’s Wood School of Art in London for a while but was largely self-taught as an artist. He lived a multifarious life and was part of the British Avant Garde circle called ‘Unit One’ along with other well known artists such as Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson. He became most visible on the art circuit for the Surrealist paintings he produced after the war.

He always wore brown shoes, grey shirts which he would dye a particular blue and a brown tie. Many of his works were created using oil paint, egg tempera and a square headed Courbet brush. He lived on very little, worked continuously and died in 1973 from Parkinson’s Disease.

Although Armstrong became increasingly disabled by Parkinson’s disease in his later years, he continued to paint and travel and at seventy-three he was elected an Associate member of the Royal Academy of Art, London.

He is a wonderful painter.

His life and work is worth exploring.

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