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Armfield, Maxwell Ashbylocked

(1881–1972)

Armfield, Maxwell Ashby (1881–1972), artist and writer, was born at Ringwood, Hampshire, on 5 October 1881, the eldest of the three children of Joseph John Armfield, a milling engineer, and his wife, Margaret Maxwell, a lineal descendant of the earls of Nithsdale. The Armfields were a Quaker family and Maxwell was educated at the Friends' school at Sidcot and then at Leighton Park School, near Reading, before going to the Birmingham School of Art, then under the direction of E. R. Taylor, a friend of John Ruskin and William Morris. He immediately entered the life class and was taught by Henry Payne, who introduced him to the work of Fra Angelico, and Arthur Gaskin, who stimulated his interest in tempera painting; his first essay in this medium was a painting (1897) based on Maurice Maeterlinck's Aglavaine et Sélysette. During these years he came into contact with the Pre-Raphaelite and symbolist movements, which, together with such publications as The Poster, were to influence him most directly as a decorative painter and illustrator.

In September 1902 Armfield went to Paris, where he enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière under Gustave Courtois and René Menard; he made friends with the sculptor Gaston Lachaise, and with Keith Henderson, with whom he and Norman Wilkinson, a fellow student from Birmingham whose entry Armfield contributed to the Dictionary of National Biography, shared a studio. During a visit to Italy with Henderson he met Geoffrey Whitworth, who described him thus: 'He is very quiet in manner, but at the same time has much dignity. He dresses in black velvet, with a silken orange-red bow tie which he has stencilled with patterns in gold.' At the Paris Salon in the autumn of 1904 he exhibited Faustine, a painting inspired by a poem of Algernon Charles Swinburne's, which was purchased by M. Blanc but given to the Musée du Luxembourg.

Armfield returned to London and embarked on the series of one-man and group exhibitions which was to mark his career. At the Rowley Galleries in 1906 he shared an exhibition with Gaston Lachaise, contributing 'A note on the revival of painting in tempera' to the catalogue, under the pseudonym E. Grant-Stuart; this was the first time that he had used a pseudonym, though later in life, particularly in the 1940s, when he was to write extensively on eastern religions and mysticism, the subterfuge of public anonymity was to appeal to him greatly. In 1907 he shared an exhibition at the Fine Art Society with other members of the Birmingham group, including his former teachers Henry Payne and Arthur Gaskin, as well as Joseph Southall, the leading figure of the tempera revival; that year he also had his first exhibit at the New English Art Club.

Armfield's interest in the theatre, which had been fostered by Wilkinson and Whitworth, was reinforced by his marriage, on 20 January 1909, to the disabled playwright and author (Anne) Constance Smedley (1876–1941), daughter of W. T. Smedley, a chartered accountant, and Annie Elizabeth Duckworth. From this time until her death on 9 March 1941, Max and Constance worked very much in tandem; The Flower Book (1909) was the first fruit of this collaboration, which involved not only the writing and illustrating of books but also a deep involvement with the theatre. From their first home at Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire, they founded the Cotswold Players, then in London the Greenleaf Theatre, and later, in the United States, the course for community drama and the summer school of theatre at Berkeley, California; in all these projects they tried to revive the spirit of medieval drama as well as to create a new interest in the art of minstrelsy. Constance led him to become a Christian Scientist and to an active involvement in pacifist politics, of which his illustrations to The Ballet of the Nations (1915) by Vernon Lee were a direct result.

During these years Armfield wrote several books, most importantly A Manual of Tempera Painting (1930), and painting occupied only a limited amount of his time. Later he was to say that his mature style dated from the time of his wife's death; his first major painting from this period, Red Tape and Sealing Wax (1942), depicted a Nijinsky-like nude breaking all bonds and striding off into the unknown. At this time his belief in Christian Science was superseded by an exploration of esoteric eastern religions, and Mary Baker Eddy's triadic law of category became transformed into a new law, ‘Rhythmic Vitality, Form and Colour’, which was to govern his approach to painting for the remaining thirty years of his life.

The post-war years were difficult for artists working in a traditional vein. However, Armfield lived long enough to see the revival of interest in the styles to which he had adhered; the Fine Art Society's ‘Homage to Maxwell Armfield’ exhibition (1970) and ninetieth-birthday exhibition of his recent paintings (1971) provided a triumphant culmination to a long and creative life.

Armfield died, childless, at Warminster, Wiltshire, on 23 January 1972. Throughout his life he painted many self-portraits, one of which, of 1901, is in the Birmingham City Art Gallery.

Sources

  • M. A. Armfield, autobiography, priv. coll. [unpublished MS]
  • C. Smedley, Crusaders: the reminiscences of Constance Smedley (1929)
  • The Times (25 Jan 1972)
  • Homage to Maxwell Armfield, The Fine Art Society (1970) [exhibition catalogue, The Fine Art Society, London, 6 April – 1 May 1970]
  • Maxwell Armfield, The Fine Art Society (1977) [exhibition catalogue, The Fine Art Society, London, 24 May – 17 June 1977]
  • personal knowledge (1986)

Archives

  • Tate collection, Tate Gallery Archive, corresp., diaries, notebooks and sketchbooks

Likenesses

  • M. A. Armfield, self-portrait, 1901, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Wealth at Death

£4205: probate, 25 Feb 1972, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]