When I was researching the painter John Armstrong for the Shell and the Art of Advertising exhibition, I had already done some biographical research on him for the Lowry to Piper show. This British artist, perhaps not as well known to the general public as John Piper, L. S. Lowry or Graham Sutherland, was multi-talented and had turned his skills to murals, film and stage sets, book illustrations and advertising design as well as painting.
For Lowry to Piper, I had concentrated on his painting, but had discovered just how strong a connection he had established with Shell. Not only had Armstrong produced designs for Shell posters, he had also designed and painted murals for Shell.
Jack Beddington, publicity manger for Shell in the 1930s, described him as an “artist of great originality and power”. Several poster designs were commissioned from Armstrong during the 1930s, including one which featured an affectionate caricature of Beddington himself – currently to be seen in the Shell exhibition. Armstrong was also asked to design and paint an eight-panel mural for the dining room in Shell-Mex House, for many years the headquarters of the company.
The panels, titled Transport through the Ages, were on the theme of “Before and After Petrol” and featured different modes of transport. Painted in egg tempera on gessoed plywood panels, Armstrong used earth pigments – dark umbers, siennas and yellows – in a style similar to Art Deco but very much individually his own. While each highly simplified design is presented in a non-naturalistic almost geometric form, the curves and serpentine lines instantly create fluidity and movement.
The panels were completed and hung in Shell-Mex House in 1933:
John Armstrong’s original eight paintings from which the murals were taken are currently in the National Motor Museum’s Shell Art Collection in Beaulieu. The panels themselves, having survived a 1940 bombing raid which severely damaged Shell-Mex House during World War II, continued to be hung there till 1956 when they were removed and put into storage.
In 1964, they went on public exhibition in Shell-Mex House after which they were transferred to the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry. In 1980, they went on permanent display at the then new Museum of British Road Transport, also in Coventry. That museum, now known as Coventry Transport Museum, is currently undergoing a major redevelopment due for completion in April 2015. It is to be hoped that the eight panels of John Armstrong’s Transport through the Ages will once again play a major role in the presentation of Britain’s motoring heritage.