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Regular readers of the Upton blog may remember that, early in the year when Upton was preparing for the Shell and the Art of Advertising exhibition, there was a focus group of researchers who were looking into the lives and works of the artists who were to be featured. I was one of those researchers and “my” subject was John Armstrong, a multi-talented artist who had turned his skills to murals, film and stage sets, book illustrations and advertising design as well as painting.


At one of our Shell research meetings before the exhibition


It was through my research that I was lucky enough to find myself contacting Mrs Annette Armstrong, his widow, who was delighted to hear that her husband’s works were to be featured in our exhibition – his painting for the poster Theatre -Goers Use Shell which features on the banners at Upton House advertising the exhibition, plus not only the original “Farmer George” painting which usually hangs in the Shell Room at Upton, but also the poster from the painting – These Men Use Shell, Farmers.


Mrs Armstrong was invited to the opening of Shell and the Art of Advertising in April but was unable to come.  She did say, however, that she would very much like to visit Upton later in the year.  So I was very pleased when she contacted me to set the date – Monday 27th October.


Mrs Armstrong arrived with her daughter Catherine and grandson Nicolai in the afternoon of a grey and damp day to a warm welcome from Rachael and me.   Our first stop was the Squash Court Gallery.   I always start the exhibition tour with the John Armstrong Theatre-Goers painting and, as we were talking about it, a new fact emerged which I hadn’t come across in my research.   The theatre-goers come not from John Armstrong’s imagination but are actually portraits of the three Sitwell siblings – Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell, all prominent, if a little eccentric, writers and artists of the 1920s and 30s. I commented on Edith’s little smile in the painting but Mrs Amstrong told me that Edith was actually exceptionally shy and, indeed, looking at various pictures of her, there’s hardly ever a smile to be seen!  The exhibition tour ended with the “Farmer George” painting and poster and the details on the “Transport through the Ages” murals, designed and painted by John Armstrong for Shell-Mex House, which are currently in store, awaiting the reopening of the Coventry Transport Museum.

The Armstrong Family with Barbara Purser (1)

Barbara with the Armstrong family


Next was a tour of the house, from the Dining Room to the Picture Gallery, with a very knowledgeable Mrs Armstrong recognising many of the works in the Upton Collection.   By now, dusk was falling rapidly so any idea of seeing the Gardens had to be abandoned and our guests departed at 5.00 pm, with many thanks all round and our good wishes that they return again to Upton some time in the future.


Several of John Armstrong’s paintings will be featured in the Conscience and Conflict, British Artist and the Spanish Civil War exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, from 08 November 2014 to 15 February 2015.