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Issue 90 - Artist in residence: Anthony Armstrong

Scotland Magazine Issue 90
December 2016


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Artist in residence: Anthony Armstrong

Roddy Martine visits Anthony Armstrong in Blairgowrie

It was a recording of Guiseppe Verdi's La Forza del Destino that changed Anthony Armstrong's life. In his early 20s, he had been driving to Rome with his sister and friends when a wheel came off their pre-war car and they crashed over an embankment. His passengers were unhurt, but Anthony spent five weeks in hospital in Pisa. One night, he was lying in his bed when one of the other patients persuaded him to listen to a radio programme.

“It took a near death experience to free me,” he explains. “After art school, my mother had persuaded me to take a teaching course, and that was what I had been doing for 18 months – teaching. Somehow that wonderful music and those words – ‘the power of fate’ – made me focus on what I really wanted to do. And that was to paint.” Since then, Anthony has always firmly believed in his destiny. “In so many ways, my life since that experience has been given to me,” he muses.

Born in Ireland, like that other successful Scottish painter Sir James Lavery, he was transported to Glasgow by his widowed Scottish mother at the age of two. At the age of 17 he enrolled at Glasgow School of Art with the intention of becoming a designer. “The Second World War was just a few years past and I'd seen all those amazing propaganda posters,” he recalls. “So what I wanted to do was design posters, but then after three months I realized that I just wanted to paint.” He continues: “It was such a great time to be at the Mackintosh School, as we called it. I was approached by Benno Schotz – who was the head of sculpture – saying that I could have a bursary if I joined his department, but I decided against it. By then I'd fallen in love with the structure of paintings, initially admiring the Italian primitives.”

As is to be expected, Anthony's cluttered studio, at the heart of the picturesque Perthshire town of Blairgowrie, is overflowing with paint brushes; pastel crayons; palates; an easel; picture frames; and canvases – some finished, others mostly incomplete. Small notebooks unexpectedly reveal the story of this much traveled man – street and cafe scenes in France, Singapore and Bermuda; figures on the beach on the Lido, the island opposite Venice; and berry pickers in the Carse of Gowrie. This is an artist who, unlike so many of the interlopers of today's art world, can actually draw.

His craft he learned under the inspirational tutoring of David Donaldson, Limner to Her Majesty the Queen in Scotland. At the time, older students at Glasgow College of Art included Ernest Hood, Alasdair Gray and Sandy Goudie. Among his contemporaries were Jack Knox, Anda Paterson and Norrie Kirkham. Back in 1990, Anthony published a sumptuous coffee table book of his Glasgow paintings; richly colourful images of an iconic city undergoing spectacular change. It was therefore all the more emotional for him to hold his most recent exhibition, in May 2016, at the Glasgow Art Club.

The versatility of his skill means that his work ranges from large oil paintings, landscapes
and portraits, to animated pastel depictions of bustling street society and the occasional nude, to his thought provoking still life arrangements. Each masterpiece reveals a rare vivacity, a delicious sense of what is furtively going on in the background, sometimes evoking a passing nod to Edgar Degas.

For four or five weeks of every year, Anthony worked in Venice, staying either in a small flat near the Rialto or the Giardini next to the site of the Venice Biennale. Another of his favoured locations is the South of France. With a studio in London during the 1990s, he was invited to visit the Unites States and was granted a studio at Bellhaven in Virginia. “The Washington Post actually threw a party to welcome me,” he remembers. “I found an agent and I got a lot of work and publicity. On two occasions I was even invited to visit the White House.” This is clearly a period that Anthony remembers fondly. “It was wonderful in those days. You could sell paintings, if they were good, and people genuinely wanted to buy them.” Serendipity, he thinks, is splendid. “One day I met a tall gentleman who was a descendant of Queen Liliuokalani, the last reigning monarch of Hawaii. He invited me to have an exhibition in Honolulu and I stayed there for a month.”

At that time, Anthony did consider remaining permanently in America, but the call of Scotland was too strong and by 2001 he was back in Glasgow with a studio in Park Circus. Then came Blairgowrie, where he now lives with his companion Brigitte. A spacious garden room in their home doubles as a gallery.

Over the years, Anthony has undertaken commissions from the Royal Automobile Club (he has a passion for cars); the BBC and STV; and there have also been one-man shows in Edinburgh; London; Munro House for the Washington Arts Club; and Hawaii. His work features in the public collections of the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum; the Hunterian Museum; Paisley Museum and Art Gallery; and the Hawaian Cultural Foundation. Corporate Collections include Lithgow Holdings; the American Chemical Society; and British Petroleum.

Now entrenched in the Scottish Highlands, he reminisces about the places he loves best: France, Italy, America and, of course, Scotland. “Until Glasgow, I purposefully hadn't exhibited for a number of years because I wanted to give myself time,” he says. “Painting needs time,” he concludes. “The essence is so strong it is hard to capture. The grandeur of all the mountains and glens next to where I live is timeless and nothing about them is in a hurry. ”