Armstrong, Thomas (DNB12)

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ARMSTRONG, THOMAS (1832–1911), artist, born at Fallowfield, Manchester, on 19 Oct. 1832, was eldest son of Thomas Armstrong. Educated at a private school at Tarvin, near Chester, he was originally intended for business in Manchester. His tastes, however, led him to take up drawing under Mr. Crazier, of the Manchester Fine Art Academy. Deciding to adopt painting as a profession, he went to Paris in 1853, contemporaneously with du Maurier, Poynter, Lamont, and Whistler. At first he worked in the Académie of Suisse, who had been for many years a prisoner of war at Dartmoor and on his release had set up an art class in Paris, which the principal painters of the Restoration period from Ingres onwards had frequented. Armstrong subsequently entered the atelier of Ary Scheffer, who greatly influenced his style and method of work. In the summer he joined Millet, Bodmer, and Charles Jacque at Barbizon, and from them learnt much of which he made profitable use in his work in Algiers (1858-9) and subsequently on the Riviera (1870-2). Meanwhile he had studied in the Académie Royale of Antwerp under Van Lerius (1855-6), and in 1860 he was joined by du Maurier at Düsseldorf. There Professor Eduard Bendemann had recently succeeded F. W. Schadow, who had brought from Rome to Germany the traditions of Renaissance art. On his return to England Armstrong devoted himself to decorative painting in houses in the north, and on more than one occasion associated with his work that of his friend Randolph Caldecott [q. v. ], whom he was the means of bringing into public notice. In 1864 he definitely fixed himself in London, exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy from 1865 to 1877, and subsequently up to 1881 at the Grosvenor Gallery. His landscape painting was distinguished by its fidelity and poetic feeling, but in his figure pieces, to which he devoted much time and conscientious labour, the conflicting influences of his early training were often apparent.

In 1881 Armstrong was appointed director for art at the South Kensington (now Victoria and Albert) Museum in succession to Sir Edward J. Poynter, R.A., and he promptly made his influence felt on the methods of teaching. He held that so rarely were the talents of the craftsman and designer to be found united in the same pupil, that it was the duty of technical schools to recognise the independence of the two capacities, while applying art to industry in every branch of teaching. Before his appointment to South Kensington he had guided and instructed Miss Jekyll in her efforts to establish at Chelsea a school for art needlework for the first time in this country, efforts which were amply justified by the results. In his official capacity he continued to work on the same lines. He warmly supported the efforts of Walter Copland Perry [q. v. Suppl. II] to supply art students with an adequate representation of antique sculpture, and developed and carried out the plans of his predecessor (Sir) Edward Poynter, for a museum of casts. To his initiative also was due the revival of the art of English enamelling, under Professor Dalpeyrat in 1886. He was, too, a warm supporter of the School of Art Wood-carving, which, though not officially countenanced or aided by the department, received the active support of its chief, Sir John Donnelly [q. v. Suppl. II], to whose place as chairman of the committee Armstrong succeeded in 1902. But it was by the personal interest which he took in the pupils' work, scattered though it was all over the country, that Armstrong's services to art and its application to industry must be gauged. He made himself acquainted with the requirements of each district, the special aptitudes of the students and the lines on which they needed help and guidance. It was owing to Armstrong's insistence that the Victoria and Albert Museum possesses the reproduction to scale of the Camerino of Isabelle d'Este, the Appartamento Borgia in the Vatican, the dome of the Chapel of St. Peter Martyr at Milan, and the chief room of the Palazzio Madama at Rome and other works works representing the highest period of the Italian renaissance and invaluable to students of decorative art. With the same object he applied himself to the acquisition of works of art for the museum having an educational value or bearing upon the development of artistic taste and feeling. His colloquial knowledge of foreign languages, combined with an attractive personality, behind which lay a shrewd sense of business, enabled him not only to purchase and acquire for the museum many important works, but to establish friendly relations with the directors and officials of similar museums on the continent, and to attract them to this country to compare and explain their methods. Armstrong retired from South Kensington in 1898, when he was made C.B. Thereupon he took up painting again, and devoted himself especially to the execution of a mural tablet in plaster and copper which was placed in the church at Abbots Langley to the memory of his only child the subjects of the panels being a Riposo and Christ and the doctors.

Armstrong died suddenly at Abbots Langley on 24 April 1911, and was buried there. On 22 April 1881 he married Mary Alice, daughter of Colonel Brine of Shaldon, Devon.

[The Times, 26 April 1911; private information; Graves's Royal Academy Exhibitors; Art Journal 1891 with portrait.]

L. R.