Precipice signed with initials and dated 'JA 38' (lower right) tempera on gesso prepared board 67.3 x 101.7 cm. (26 1/2 x 40 in.) (with painted mount)
PROVENANCE: Private Collection, U.K.
EXHIBITED: London, Alex Reid & Lefevre, John Armstrong, 1938, no.12
LITERATURE: Andrew Lambirth (with a catalogue raisonné by Annette Armstrong and Jonathan Gibbs), John Armstrong: The Paintings, Phillip Wilson Publishers, London, p.172, no.194
John Armstrong held his first one man exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in 1938 and was pleased that the Tate Gallery acquired their first picture, Dreaming Head from the show. Precipice was included as number 12 in the exhibition and was offered with a price tag of £50 making it one of the more expensive works on offer. T.W. Earps foreward to the catalogue immediately draws on the qualities of the present work as he discusses the 'scraps of paper whirling in to-day's gust'.
Precipice has surreal qualities although Armstrong never considered himself a surrealist. He was uninterested in joining the English surrealists in 1936 when the likes of Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland gathered at the First International Surrealist Exhibition in Burlington Gardens. When questioned about his lack of participation, Armstrong stated, 'I realised I didn't belong there' but he admitted 'there are certain paintings of mine that could be called surrealist, like The Philosopher', which was exhibited alongside Precipice in the 1938 show.
Precipice, like The Philosopher or In an Upper Room as it is also known, is a tempera painting depicting a head on a wire frame with hands attached but no further human qualities. The models head is blindfolded, as in other works of the same period like Encounter in the Plain and there has been some debate as to the possible meaning of this. One theory is, considering the date of 1938 and Armstrong's informed political mind, that this could symbolise Britain's blindness and apparent apathy towards the ever growing Nazi threat on continental Europe. However, this is inconclusive and whilst one can look for meaning within the work this may ultimately prove futile. In his much needed new monograph of the artist, Andrew Lambirth welcomes discussion as to the purpose of these armature-mannequins but goes on to state that 'we should perhaps not take these pictures too seriously and look for deep, symbolic meanings' (Andrew Lambirth (with a catalogue raisonné by Annette Armstrong and Jonathan Gibbs), John Armstrong: The Paintings, Phillip Wilson Publishers, London, p.59).
Armstrong's palette in the present work is very much the blue and brown that he favoured during this period as a reflection of the sky and earth (a combination that even stretched to the clothes he wore). Another important and interesting attribute of Precipice is its original framing by Robert Sielle who worked closely with Armstrong on a number of occasions. In a Studio article of 1939 Armstrong explained the need to 'preserve the dream-like qualities of the painting by isolating the picture from the frame' and how some of his work had 'been made in the shape of a tray in which the painting appears to float' (John Armstrong in The Studio, April 1939, p.143). It seems unquestionable that Armstrong had Precipice in mind when discussing the projection of a painting 'forward from a background of rough-sawn wood treated with gesso, so that, in a sense the projecting part belongs to the panel and the rest to the wall on which it is hung, although the total effect is one of complete unity' (Ibid, p.143).
We are grateful to Jonathan Gibbs for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.