Modern British Art by Maxwell Armfield: Damsels in a Wood, 1916 |





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Maxwell Armfield:
Damsels in a Wood, 1916

Unframed (ref: 4431)

Signed with each artist’s  monogram between the date ‘1916'

Embroidered lunette, silk and woollen threads on rectangular unbleached linen ground, 37 x 76 in. (94 x 193 cm.)

Tags: design farms/domestic animals

Prov: coll. the  late Dr. Paul van Saanen

Lit:  Maxwell Armfield 1881-1972, Southampton Art Gallery 1978; Nicola Gordon Bowe, ‘Maxwell Armfield 1881-1972:  an account of his decorative art’ in Aspects of British Interior Design (The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850 to the present, no. 12), ed. Barbara Morris,  Brighton 1986, pp. 26-37;  Nicola Gordon Bowe, ‘Constance and Maxwell Armfield: An American Interlude 1915-1922, The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts, no. 14, Fall 1989,  pp. 8-27.

 This striking composition, epitomizing the Armfields’ Arts and Crafts background and their current  work with avant-garde theatre design, depicts two damsels frozen in mid-action as they proceed through  a wood.   One bends to pick the lustrous flowers that carpet their path;  the other  savours the scent of  a flower before  adding it to her basket,  while a capricious goat, in mid-bound,  munches an ivy leaf trailing from it.   A mistle thrush is the only other protagonist, perched on the branch of one of  the grey tree trunks that provide a strong, neutral vertical rhythm to the girls’ frieze-like progression.   A thin line of black running stitch delineates their forms, while the profiled  girls and  goat are outlined in the colours used for the decorative patterns which describe their forms.  The girls’gestures,  their long dark hair, one girl’s stripey stockings, and the goat’s black horns and hooves emphasize these.  Warm reds are used for shoes, a  geometrical  sash, a hair band and fallen leaves, while the silk of golden leaves on  hanging fronds catches  the light. 

 The Armfields had worked in close collaboration since their marriage in January 1909, whether in the experimental community theatre that was central to their lives in Gloucestershire, in London  and, between 1915 and 1922,  in California and New York, or on the various books, poems and articles that they wrote and  illustrated.   In the autumn of 1916, the year of  this panel, the International Studio magazine featured a three page  article on the  embroidered  work they had exhibited with the National Society of Craftsmen;  this was held  at  the New York Arts Club on Gramercy Park,  where they  had a studio apartment and re-established their Greenleaf Theatre during much of  the First World War.  It is  likely that this panel  featured in this 1916  exhibition,  which was  rapturously reviewed in the press.   That  December,  Armfield was recorded  by his wife as covering the bare rooms of their apartment with flowers, while she made samplers and cushions and gave a course of eight  lectures on English embroidery,  and he painted murals, canvases, tempera panels and made wall-hangings and embroideries.  She particularly noted some “wonderful embroidered flowers on black silk  -  a jewelled blaze of colour”, which appeared on the cover of the December 1916 issue of  the fashionably progressive American Ladies Home Journal.  The following year, they began making embroidered hangings on a larger scale, as screens and wall and table covers, perhaps prompted by the scale of this piece.  Their friends, the McKnight Kauffers, were instrumental in suggesting exhibition venues on both coasts of America.  It was not long before both Armfields were in demand, one critic noting how “intensely modern, both in his mentality and in his technical accomplishments” the versatile young Mr. Armfield was.

 For several  years, Maxwell Armfield’s designs, whether stencilled, embroidered or painted on fabric, drawn or painted on paper, panel or  canvas, had favoured outlines rather than tones or any suggestion of voluminous forms, the  frozen  frieze-like action of his figures  emulating eurhythmic poses.  His tempera illustrations and costume and set  designs for Shakespeare’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’ (published in 1922), influenced by Ancient Greek and Egyptian as much as early Renaissance  painted images and expounded through the productions of  their Greenleaf Theatre,  were  described as ‘visualising actual movement on stage’,  rather than as being ‘illustrations of a text’.  They encapsulated the esoteric mathematical  principles of ‘Dynamic Symmetry’ that he would hear  propounded in New York by Professor Jay Hambidge.

 This  panel is an extremely  rare survival from the Armfields’ American sojourn, when they abandoned their beloved England in the throes of a war they could not countenance.   It is very unusual in that it is signed by both Armfields, ‘MA’ and ‘CA’, using the forms of  the colophon habitually marking Maxwell Armfield’s work.   (Another surviving  lunette,  also dated 1916, painted in tempera on board, depicts  ‘Goats’ nibbling leaves, but is of course  signed by Armfield alone.) The stitching, reflecting Constance Armfield’s  training at the Birmingham School of Art and both Armfields’ interest in craftsmanship and in  mediaevalism made modern,  is  effectively spare in its restraint,  allowing the natural materials they have  carefully chosen to become as much part of the panel’s appeal as its subject matter.  

Nicola Gordon Bowe

January 2007

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