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Cover of the book under review.

By the time he died in 1896, Edward Armitage was one of the grand old men of the Victorian art world, and Jill Armitage has paid full tribute to him in this persuasive and beautifully presented book. She mentions, only towards the end and in passing, that he was her greatgrandfather's uncle, so this was clearly a labour of love for her.

There were challenges. Armitage came at the tail-end of an age of high seriousness, when major artists painted grand subjects in the grand manner. As his friend G. F. Watts put it, with particular reference to mural painting: "For public improvement it is necessary that works of sterling but simple excellence should be scattered abroad as widely as possible" (qtd. p. 115; emphasis added). With such an aim in mind, Armitage generally chose classical and Biblical subjects, which, far from being in any way "simple," now require elucidation. Other works of his draw on more recent history, with which again many of us have lost touch. Then, Armitage's work was often on a large scale, intended (as Watts's pronouncement suggests) to adorn walls in public spaces. Some of the frescoes on which he spent so much time, like his Biblical scenes for the nave of Marylebone Church, soon deteriorated and were painted over. Others, such as those in the poets' gallery of the Palace of Westminster, have been painstakingly restored in our own times, but are difficult to access. Some of his work is in private collections, others have come down to us only through engravings in journals or photogravures in his selected Pictures and drawings (1898), a scarce folio edition prepared by his widow Laurie, who died soon after him. Armitage's oeuvre was, anyway, limited by his commitment to large mural projects. The result is that the website Art Uk only has 28 reproductions of his paintings, compared to (for example) nearly 160 reproductions of works by John Everett Millais.

St Simon, a detail from Armitage's Christ and the Twelve Apostles fresco in the apse of St John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, Islington. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The first point Jill Armitage makes, in looking at his early life and career, is that Armitage chose his own path very deliberately. His training under Paul DelaRoche at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris set him on it, "instilling in him the importance of correct draughtsmanship and choice of 'worthy' subject-matter, as well as a lasting love of fresco-painting" (7). Years later, after mentioning Armitage's painting Ahab and Jezebel (1864), which was lampooned in Fun magazine, a sympathetic critic in Blackwood's pointed out that "Mr Armitage deserves praise for the courage required in the adoption of this self-denying manner, for experience proves that a facile pictorial treatment is in the present day the surest road to popular applause" (qtd. p.109). Admittedly, having been born into a family of northern industrialists, Armitage had the means to follow a less popular course. But fashion might nevertheless have exerted its pull. Only a couple of years later, when discussing the reception of another painting of high seriousness (The Remorse of Judas, 1866), Jill Armitage notes that "some were starting to admit that the style was becoming 'all but extinct'" (113). Yet he stuck to his beliefs, and was rewarded at last when he and Watts were both elected Associates of the Royal Academy in 1867. He was eventually elected to full membership in 1872, and, as Professor of Painting, lectured at the Academy from 1876-82. There he continued to fight for his ideals, instituting reforms and establishing an award, the Armitage Medal, to be given, in Lord Leighton's words, for "the qualities of dignity and style in form and composition" (qtd. p. 176). So high were the standards that a suitable recipient could not always be found.

Many black-and-white illustrations, and a generous number of colour plates in the middle of the book, demonstrate both Armitage's own seriousness of purpose, and his compositional skills. Unfortunately, it is hard now to admire his best-known work, Retribution, which also features on the front cover: Britannia's furious revenge on the Indians who rose up against the British in 1857 is a painful reminder of the colonial past. But it is still an immensely powerful work: the intense feelings are conveyed in inspired draughtsmanship as well as in the expressions and positioning of the figures, whether allegorical, human or animal. Other paintings, like Faith (1884), which tells the Biblical story of the woman hoping to be healed by touching Jesus's garment, invite a more empathetic response. This, like so many of his works, had a mixed reception, yet it was chosen by the Art Journal to illustrate an account of Armitage's work after his death. The writer describes it fairly as "a work full of movement and restrained passion, dignified in the central figure and successful as a picture of elaborate composition" (194). Such paintings may lack the immediate appeal of genre painting, but reveal themselves to the patient observer as neither dry nor cold.

Detail of The Triumph of Arts and Letters – Philosophers, Sages and Students. Courtesy of the Royal Albert Hall Archives.

Armitage's work has a much greater range than expected. One of the most surprising paintings is his portrait of Miss Laurie (1869), his wife's unmarried aunt, who was seventy-nine at the time and probably living with the couple in St John's Wood (she was certainly resident there at the time of the 1871 census). As Jill Armitage says, it does indeed show tiny "details of the delicate silk and lace of her bonnet, as well as capturing a steely determination of character, suggesting a close relationship between artist and sitter" (85). Armitage's portraits of his wife, given in black and white, are also really delightful, and his self-portrait of 1882 is full of character. Then, what a shame he was rather wary of landscape-painting! The extensive backgrounds of large works like A Siren (1888), for example, reveal his sensitivity to the natural world. This one, with its ominous indications of wreckage in the foreground, and the ghostly outlines of distant ships following Ulysses into danger, suggests that he would have excelled in seascapes too, had he thought them worthy of his full attention. Jill Armitage also shows us one large work of his that is readily accessible in London, but too high up to appreciate properly: his contribution to the terracotta mosaic frieze on the Royal Albert Hall. He was responsible for two sections of this, the Princes, Art Patrons and Artists section, with seventeen figures, and A Group of Philosophers, Sages and Students, with twenty-three figures. At first glance, these might appear severely classical, but they contain some unexpected contemporary details — in the latter, for example, Sir Richard Owen is seen pointing to a fossil, while a young female student (a novelty for the time), is taking notes. Another young woman can be seen watching a scientific experiment.

After an Entomological Sale: Beati Possidentes (1878).

As a happily married man, a sociable member of the St John's Wood clique, a keen and competitive yachtsman and perhaps an even keener entomologist, Armitage lived a full and varied life outside the Academy. No one could be better placed to convey this than Jill Armitage, and she gives a much more rounded picture of him than we have ever had before. Here at last is the man depicted in his most endearing painting, After an Entomological Sale: Beati Possidentes (1878): the man surrounded by friends and fellow-entomologists, and beaming at a newly acquired specimen. Jill Armitage has not only identified the other figures in the portrait, but some of the beetles, and the skull of a wild pig on a shelf behind them. It would have been helpful to know the sizes of this and other paintings, but such information may not always have been available: this painting itself is untraced, and has come down to us, like many others, as a photogravure in Pictures and Drawings: Selected from the Works of Edward Armitage RA (1898).

Left: Esther's Banquet (or, The Festival of Esther), by Edward Armitage, 1865. Right: Esther by John Everett Millais (1865).

There is much to admire in Armitage's life and works. He never lost his belief that mural painting was "the noblest branch of our profession" (qtd. p.171), despite his problems with it. He continued to paint elevated subjects rather than court popular acclaim. Largely as a result of these choices, his reputation has suffered more than most from changes in artistic trends. Engaging our sympathies with both the man and his work, Jill Armitage's book could not have done more to reverse this process. In discussing the reception of his individual works, especially when these were compared to works on similar themes by his contemporaries, she also gives us considerable insight into the art world of his time.

Book under review

Armitage, Jill R. Edward Armitage RA: Battles in the Victorian Art World. Kilworth Beauchamp, Leicestershire: Matador, 2017. Pbk. xv + 224 pp. £24.99. ISBN 978-1-78803-536-1.

Created 14 October 2019