John Armstrong

Known primarily for his imaginative subjects, stage designs, book illustrations, and murals

Born 1893, Hastings, Sussex

Died 1973


1912-1913   Studies law at St. John’s College, Oxford.

1913-1914   Studies at St. John’s Wood School of Art.

1914-1919   Serves in the Royal Field Artillery during World War I.

1920s   Briefly resumes his studies at St. John’s Wood School of Art.  He then shifts his focus to theater design.  Armstrong becomes friends with actors Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton, both of whom help him to gain numerous patrons.  For instance, they introduce him to Lillian Courtlaud (Samuel Courtauld’s wife), who commissions him to paint and decorate a room in their home.

1928   Exhibits doll-like figures at his first solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries.

1933   Becomes a member of Unit One group. During this time, his works embody Surrealism and he creates abstract paintings with tempera executed in a way that appears highly textured. 

1930s   Begins designing posters for Shell, as well as set designs for theater and film.  His designs for theater and the ballet include Macbeth, Riverside Nights, Measure for Measure, Magic Flute and Façade. During this time, he also designs sets for Sir Alexander Korda’s film productions of Henry VIII, Rembrandt, and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

1936   Designs costumes for Rembrandt.

Late 1930s   Creates dream-like images with influences of Surrealism and Neo-Romanticism.  For instance, Pro Patria of 1938 shows a town devastated by war and includes a peeling political poster with Armstrong’s commentary on the Spanish Civil War.  This technique of encompassing his political commentary into his art would also be present in his later works. 

1940-1945   Gains the title of “Official War Artist.”

1956   Paints murals for the Bristol Council Chamber’s ceiling, as well as the Shell Mex House.