Constance Armfield: Damsels in a Wood, 1916 - on Art WW I



Constance Armfield:
Damsels in a Wood, 1916

Unframed (ref: 2635)

Signed with each artist’smonogram between the date '1916'.

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

Tags: Constance Armfield embroidery/needlework design farms/domestic animals WW-1 Paintings

Provenance: The Artist's Studio

Prov: coll. thelate 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 currentwork with avant-garde theatre design, depicts two damsels frozen in mid-action as they proceed througha wood.One bends to pick the lustrous flowers that carpet their path;the othersavours the scent ofa flower beforeadding 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 ofthe 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 profiledgirls andgoat 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, ageometricalsash, a hair band and fallen leaves, while the silk of golden leaves onhanging fronds catchesthe 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 Londonand, between 1915 and 1922,in California and New York, or on the various books, poems and articles that they wrote andillustrated.In the autumn of 1916, the year ofthis panel, the International Studio magazine featured a three pagearticle on theembroideredwork they had exhibited with the National Society of Craftsmen;this was heldatthe New York Arts Club on Gramercy Park,where theyhad a studio apartment and re-established their Greenleaf Theatre during much ofthe First World War.It islikely that this panelfeatured in this 1916exhibition,which wasrapturously reviewed in the press.ThatDecember,Armfield was recordedby his wife as covering the bare rooms of their apartment with flowers, while she made samplers and cushions and gave a course of eightlectures 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 ofthe 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 severalyears, Maxwell Armfield’s designs, whether stencilled, embroidered or painted on fabric, drawn or painted on paper, panel orcanvas, had favoured outlines rather than tones or any suggestion of voluminous forms, thefrozenfrieze-like action of his figuresemulating eurhythmic poses.His tempera illustrations and costume and setdesigns for Shakespeare’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’ (published in 1922), influenced by Ancient Greek and Egyptian as much as early Renaissancepainted images and expounded through the productions oftheir Greenleaf Theatre,weredescribed as ‘visualising actual movement on stage’,rather than as being ‘illustrations of a text’.They encapsulated the esoteric mathematicalprinciples of ‘Dynamic Symmetry’ that he would hearpropounded in New York by Professor Jay Hambidge.

Thispanel is an extremelyrare 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 ofthe colophon habitually marking Maxwell Armfield’s work.(Another survivinglunette,also dated 1916, painted in tempera on board, depicts‘Goats’ nibbling leaves, but is of coursesigned by Armfield alone.) The stitching, reflecting Constance Armfield’straining at the Birmingham School of Art and both Armfields’ interest in craftsmanship and inmediaevalism made modern,iseffectively spare in its restraint,allowing the natural materials they havecarefully chosen to become as much part of the panel’s appeal as its subject matter.

Nicola Gordon Bowe

January 2007

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