Maxwell Armfield (1881-1972):
Pacific Portrait, c.1915–22
Framed (ref: 8025)
Provenance: The Fortunoff collection [HF12]
Exhibited : Royal Society of Portrait Painters, 1929 (74); The Fine Art Society 1971; The National Galleries of Scotland, True to Life, 2017, (3)
Literature; Patrick Elliot & Sacha Llewellyn; True to Life, British Realist Painting in the 1920s & 1930s, July 2017, ISBN 978 1 911054 05 4, Cat. 3, page 58.
Pacific Portrait was exhibited at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters annual exhibition
in 1929. However, the title suggests that it was done in America. Armfield and his wife Constance sailed for New York in Spring 1915, probably in part to avoid his being called up to fight in the First World War (he was a Quaker turned Christian Scientist and would have stood as a conscientious objector). They stayed in New York. An exhibition of his work led to the commission from a railway company for a painting of the Grand Canyon, and they duly set off for Colorado. They then travelled on to California, where they set up a drama course in Berkeley. They subsequently lived in New York and returned to England in 1922. This portrait was presumably painted in California. It is clearly inspired by Italian Quattrocento portraiture, by the likes of Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Alesso Baldovinetti:
Portrait of a Lady, circa 1465, The National Gallery, London.
The symbolism of the Armfield is complex. The flower is a species of Metrosideros. The genus is widespread across the Pacific with species in Australia, New Zealand and Polynesia; it could be an Hawaiian species, but I’m starting to guess now.
Throughout his life - but not exclusively - Armfield worked in tempera and had trained with Joseph Southall, one of the leading figures in the tempera revival. He was a life-long member of the Society of Tempera Painters as well as the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour.
During his time in America he exhibited with both the National Arts Club in New York and the San Francisco Art Association, and had two exhibitions (1917 & 1918) at the Arlington Gallery in New York.
We are grateful to Patrick Elliott, Dr Pat Brownsey, Mark Stocker and Peyton Skipwith for his assistance.