Armitage, Edward (DNB01)

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ARMITAGE, EDWARD (1817–1896), historical painter, descended from an old Yorkshire family, was the eldest of seven sons of James Armitage of Leeds, and was born in London on 20 May 1817. His education, commenced in England, was completed on the continent, mainly in France and Germany. Having decided to become a painter, he entered at Paris in 1837 the studio of Paul Delaroche, of whom he became a favourite pupil, and who employed him as an assistant in painting portions of his well-known hemicycle in the amphitheatre of the École des Beaux-Arts at Paris. In 1842 he exhibited at the Salon his first large picture, ‘Prometheus Bound,’ which was received with favour. In 1843 he entered into the cartoon competition for the decoration of the new houses of parliament, and obtained a premium of 300l. for ‘Cæsar’s Invasion of Britain,’ the design being placed first on the list. In the competition of 1845 he was again successful, being awarded 200l. for ‘The Spirit of Religion’ (cartoon and coloured design), and in 1847 he carried off a prize of 600l. for a very large oil painting, with life-size figures, of ‘The Battle of Meeanee,’ fought on 17 Feb. 1843, which was purchased by Queen Victoria, and is now at St. James’s Palace. His great success in these competitions was followed by commissions to execute two frescoes on the walls of the upper waiting hall of the House of Lords: ‘The Personification of Thames,’ from Pope, and the ‘Death of Marmion,’ from Scott.

After spending twelve months in study at Rome, Armitage exhibited in 1848 for the first time at the Royal Academy, sending two pictures, ‘Henry VIII and Katherine Parr,’ and ‘Trafalgar,’ representing the death of Nelson. His contributions to the Academy exhibitions continued regularly till his death, with the exception of the years 1855, 1862, 1880, and 1892. The subjects of his pictures were generally biblical, and he seldom sent more than one or two a year. He exhibited ‘Samson’ in 1851 and ‘Hagar’ in 1852. During the Crimean war he visited Russia, and in 1856 exhibited ‘The Bottom of the Ravine at Inkerman,’ and in 1857 a ‘Souvenir of Scutari.’ He also painted large pictures of the ‘Heavy Cavalry Charge at Balaclava,’ and ‘The Stand of the Guards at Inkerman,’ which were not exhibited. In 1858 came ‘Retribution’ (now in the Leeds Museum), a colossal female figure holding a tiger by the throat, allegorical of the suppression of the Indian mutiny, and in 1859 ‘St. Francis and his early Followers before Pope Innocent III,’ a design for a life-size fresco (replaced by an oil painting in 1887) in the catholic church of St. John the Evangelist, Duncan Terrace, Islington. This was followed in 1860 by a design of ‘Christ and the Twelve Apostles’ for the apse of the same church. A head of one of these apostles (St. Simon), in fresco, is in the South Kensington Museum. In 1864 came ‘Ahab and Jezebel,’ in 1865 ‘Esther’s Banquet,’ now in the Diploma Gallery of the Royal Academy, and in 1866 ‘The Remorse of Judas,’ which Armitage presented to the National Gallery, and ‘The Parents of Christ seeking Him,’ which was engraved for the Art Union under the title of ‘Joseph and Mary.’ In 1867 he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, and in 1872 a full member. During these five years his subjects were varied in character, including ‘Herod’s Birthday Feast,’ now in the Corporation Art Gallery at Guildhall, ‘Hero lighting the Beacon to guide Leander across the Hellespont,’ and ‘A Deputation to Faraday, requesting him to accept the Presidency of the Royal Society.’ The last of these contains portraits of Lord Wrottesley, John Peter Gassiot, and Sir William Grove, and now hangs in the library of the Royal Society. Among the most notable of his subsequent works were: ‘A Dream of Fair Women,’ a design for a frieze in two sections; ‘The Women of the Old Testament’ (1872) and ‘The Women of Ancient Greece’ (1874); ‘In Memory of the great Fire of Chicago, and of the Sympathy shown to the Sufferers by both America and England’ (1872), which was designed for the Town Hall at Chicago, and was bought by the ‘Graphic;’ ‘Julian the Apostate presiding at a Conference of Sectarians’ (1875); and ‘Serf Emancipation: an Anglo-Saxon Noble on his Deathbed gives Freedom to his Slaves,’ now in the Walker Art Gallery at Liverpool (1877).

In 1878 Armitage exhibited ‘After an Entomological Sale, beati possidentes,’ in which he represented himself in a sale room rejoicing over a fresh acquisition for his collection of insects, in company with his friends Calderon, Hodgson, Winkfield, and others. Another of his tastes is reflected in a ‘Yachting Souvenir—Lunch in Mid Channel,’ which was exhibited in 1889. In 1893 he exhibited for the last time, sending ‘A Moslem Doctrinaire’ and a portrait of his brother, ‘The late T. R. Armitage, Esq., M.D., the Friend of the Blind.’

In 1871 he was one of the committee of artists employed in the decoration of Westminster Hall who made a report on fresco painting (see Return to House of Commons, No. 19 of 1872). In 1875 he was appointed professor and lecturer on painting to the Royal Academy. His lectures were published in 1883. Always of independent means, Armitage was able to follow his ideals in art without regard to fashion or profit, and several of his largest works were executed entirely at his own expense. This was the case with the large monochrome frescoes in University Hall, Gordon Square, in memory of Crabb Robinson, comprising portraits of twenty-two men eminent in literature, art, and other professions. The figures are over life-size, and the composition twenty yards in length. Figures of saints in Marylebone church, and the reredos (‘Seven Works of Mercy’) in St. Mark’s Church, Hamilton Terrace, St. John’s Wood, were also gifts.

As an artist Armitage took an important part in the movements for the restoration of fresco painting in England, and the decoration of the houses of parliament with historical designs. His early training on the continent and his employment by Delaroche upon a mural painting of a grand character influenced the direction of his art throughout his life. This art was cold, severe, and academic, but always lofty in aim and large in design. Armitage did not confine his interests entirely to art; he was a great collector of butterflies, a keen yachtsman, and very hospitable host, whether afloat or ashore. He passed the board of trade examination for a master’s certificate, and was a fellow of the Geographical Society. He became a ‘retired academician’ about two years before his death, which took place from apoplexy and exhaustion following pneumonia, at Tunbridge Wells, on 24 May 1896, after an illness of about three weeks. He was buried at Brighton. In 1853 he married Laurie, daughter of William and Catherine Barber of Booma, Northumberland.

[Pictures and Drawings by Edward Armitage, R.A. 1898; Cat. of National Gallery (British School); Men of the Time, 1891; obituary notices in Times and other newspapers; Clement and Hutton’s Artists of the Nineteenth Century; private information.]

C. M.