Edward Armitage, by Ralph Winwood Robinson, c. 1889. Platinum print published by C. Whittingham & Co, 1892. NPG x7348, © National Portrait Gallery, London
Best known as a history painter, Edward Armitage (1817-1896) was born when his parents were living in Tavistock Square, and baptised at St Pancras Old Church. But his family's roots were in the north, and his father was, in Robyn Asleson's description, a "wealthy ironmaster." As the first of seven sons, the young Armitage had to take a stand in order to pursue his interest in art. Then too his career lay outside "the common track" (Atkinson 19). Having previously studied in France and Germany, he entered the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1837, later becoming an assistant to the famous French history painter Paul Delaroche. His time with Delaroche set him on the path he would follow for the rest of his life. "Throughout his career he faithfully emulated Delaroche's severe draughtsmanship, exacting finish, and noble themes while also adhering to his technical methods" (Asleson).
During his time in Paris, Armitage exhibited a painting entitled Prometheus Bound in 1842, which was praised in the Bulletin des Beaux-arts as "well drawn" but also described as "brutally energetic" (qtd. in Armitage), prescient enough in view of his later and surely most dramatic work, Retribution (1858). Successes in France led to more in England, where the Queen bought his oil painting The Battle of Meanee (1847), and where he was responsible for two of the frescos in the gallery off the new Houses of Parliament's Upper Waiting Hall. Unfortunately, this prestigious commission attracted even more attention when the frescos quickly deteriorated. Armitage, however, was not put off by what his Times obituary later saw an experiment, and continued to advocate and execute large-scale work of this kind in suitable contexts. After a further period in Europe, this time in Rome, Armitage settled down in England, exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy until 1893.
Looking at Armitage's background, a contemporary critic sums it up thus:
Born of an independent Yorkshire family, and educated in a Parisian atelier, he has cherished high purposes, irrespective of immediate reward. Adopting the profession of a painter, in opposition to the wishes of his friends, he seems to have thrown into his studies an earnestness which should justify his choice. But allying himself to a foreign style distinguished for form, expression, and noble motive, he became somewhat severed from our native school, which sought fascination of colour, and touch, and pleased the eye without much expenditure of thought. [Atkinson 19]
Armitage is therefore remembered best for his huge history paintings, including some that he was commissioned to make in the Crimea, and especially for the dramatic allegorical response to the massacres at Cawnpore (Kanpur) in 1857, mentioned above — Retribution). He was much respected in his lifetime, becoming Professor and Lecturer on Painting at the Royal Academy, and publishing a selection of his lectures in 1883. Typically for an artist interested in thorough research and historical accuracy, the first lecture here is on costume: "I will begin with the ancient Jews, from Noah downward...." (1). He also did some work as an illustrator, notably for Dalziel's Bible Gallery of 1880, and after the Westminster Hall fiasco achieved better results with such work elsewhere, including his paintings in the nave of Marylebone parish church. Jill Armitage writes: "Probably his most successful frescoes were in St John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, Islington, although eventually these too deteriorated."
Armitage's wife Catherine Laurie Barber was also an artist, and the couple lived in St John's Wood, where they were very much part of the local artistic and social scene. A monied man, he was able to pursue other interests besides painting, particularly (and unusually for an artist) in entomology and yachting. He died in 1896 while on a visit to Kent, and was buried in Hove Cemetery, Brighton (see the Times funeral notice). His wife died in the following year. In the December of that year, his extremely well-stocked cellar of "choice Wines" and huge stash of cigars "deposited as a security for a loan" were put up for auction." -- Jacqueline Banerjee
Armitage, Edward. Lectures on Painting: Delivered to the Students of the Royal Academy. New York: Putnam's, 1883. Internet Archive. Contributed by the University of Michigan. Web. 4 February 2016.
Armitage, Jill, in correspondence with the author. Please see her book, Edward Armitage RA: Battles in the Victorian Art World (Kilworth Beauchamp, Leicestershire: Matador, 2017), 90-95. Published since this webpage was first created, the book is reviewed here.
Asleson, Robyn. "Armitage, Edward (1817-1896), history painter." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 3 February 2016.
Atkinson, J. Beavington. English Painters of the Present Day. London: Selley, 1871: 19-24. Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 3 February 2016.
"The Cellar of choice Wines..." The Times. 20 December 1897: 16. Times Digital Archive. Web. 3 February 2016.
"Mr. Edward Armitage's Funeral...." The Times. 27 May 1896: 1. Times Digital Archive. Web. 3 February 2016.
"Obituary: Mr. Edward Armitage, R.A." The Times. 26 May 1896: 5. Times Digital Archive. Web. 3 February 2016.
Roberts, Dave. "Painting: Edward Armitage, Retribution (1858)." Leeds Art Gallery Online. Web. 3 February 2016.
Smith, Alison. "Edward Armitage (1817-1896): Retribution, 1858." In Artist and Empire: Facing Britain's Imperial Past. Eds. Smith, David Blayney Brown, and Carol Jacobi. London: Tate Publishing, 2015. 105.
Created 4 February 2016