Thursday, May 12, 2016

More on Armour

After writing about G. D. Armour yesterday, I took his autobiography, Bridle & Brush down from the shelf and re-read a few familiar chapters. His life's account is a pleasant read, except for the parts where he goes out deer stalking or bull fighting. It's much easier to relate to him than Munnings (The Start, The Second Burst and The Finish) or even Lionel Edwards (Reminiscences of a Sporting Artist). For some reason, whenever I try reading their biographies, it's a case of "you had to be there". The drinking, carousing and all night talks about art are never as funny, exciting or interesting on the printed page as they seem to be to the participants. Armour's style is more direct. For instance, his explanation of how he arrived at the title of the book is disarmingly honest - he submitted a title which the editors condemned, so he left it to them. I could borrow his dissection of the title to explain the title of my blog, "The Fox's Brush" - the reference to the fox is pretty obvious, being that elusive creature that has fascinated anyone who's ever ridden to hounds, the brush being a familiar foxhunting term, but in this instance refers to "the instrument by means of which pictures - good, bad and indifferent - are painted." George Denholm Armour was a very down-to-earth fellow, with no pretentions and an admirable, workmanlike attitude towards his art.
Born in Lanarkshire, Scotland, he was never a bona-fide member of the smart hunting set of southern England. He grew up in Liverpool, then attended Edinburgh College of Art. Like F. A Stewart, another Scotsman and one of my all-time favorite painters, he doesn't have the name recognition of  some of his contemporaries, Cecil Aldin, Alfred Munnings and Lionel Edwards, at least not in this country. Although he wasn't as prolific as they were, Armour produced a large body of work for which he deserves some recognition.

He contributed work to Punch for nearly forty years, after an introduction by his friend and fellow artist, Phil May, doing mostly hunting and racing subjects. He started out illustrating a series of proverbs, but soon became the go-to sporting artist for the paper. On the subject of hunting he says, "To deal with such things as hunting, or, in fact, any sport, if it is to appeal to those who participate in those sports, it is absolutely necessary to take part in them oneself. There are technicalities quite unnoticeable to the townsman, mistakes which would damn the picture entirely to the people who know, and would cause them to laugh at the artist instead of at his joke." (And we all know how critical "those people" can be!) He goes on to say that he had to find his own subjects most of the time, and rarely had ideas submitted to him through the editorial department or from readers.
Armour preferred working in pencil, which he says was his favorite medium. I find this interesting because his pen & ink drawings are so much stronger than either his pencil drawings or oil paintings. When Country Life enlisted his services in 1911-12, he was able to use pencil for his illustrations, explaining, "At that time Country Life was, I think, a good deal ahead of most weekly papers in the matter of paper and printing, and in view of this I tried most things in pencil - a favourite medium of mine and a new thing for a weekly paper, I think." It seems he was initially hired as an illustrator but after a lot of "word spinning" with a writer who had no knowledge or interest in sport or country matters, Armour ultimately ended up doing the writing as well, which he, "most regretfully...had to give up after about two years' hard but enjoyable work." Country Life published books as well as a magazine and the quality of their printing allowed him to render his drawings in pencil, which he seems to have thoroughly enjoyed.

Armour was also quite proud of his illustrations for Surtees' Jorrocks, which he did for Messrs. Hodder and Stroughton, the publishers, starting in 1908. They were watercolors painted on holland (paper or board?), a method he says was invented by Joseph Crawhall, another friend and colleague. He even mounted an exhibition of these paintings and sold most of them. He was never satisfied with his illustrations for Reynard The Fox or the Ghost of Heath Run, by John Maesfield, done much later, and attributes this to not having got back into his stride after the Great War. I think he just enjoyed painting more than drawing.
In 1913 he went to America to cover the International Polo Matches on Long Island for Country Life. He attended the polo matches at the Meadow Brook Club and racing at Belmont. He had planned an exhibition and sale of his paintings in New York City at the same time, but had to agree not to sell any of them because of the heavy customs duty which needed to be paid in advance before they could be "landed".
I wholly subscribe to Armour's assertions that one must be a participant in the sport one is depicting for accuracy and conviction. But what can one make of the fact that Paul Brown, one of best sporting artists to put pencil to paper, never threw a leg over a horse? His drawings of horses and riders in all sports are very convincing. His books on the subjects of polo, racing and hunting are still highly sought after, seventy-five years after they first appeared in print, and he is recognized as one of the truly great illustrators of the 20th century. His pictures of horses and riders in all kinds of poses, and the skill and imagination with which he draws them are well worth studying. He's written a few books on how to draw horses and people which are straightforward and informative, but they're a bit disappointing because they oversimplify the subject.
Of course, I think every artist who teaches is somewhat guilty of this oversimplification of their techniques. Black & White by Brown, Simplified Drawing, by Paul Brown is a perfect example of this. In the book, he teaches his technique of drawing figures using tracing paper overlays, in order to easily modify a pose till it looks convincing without doing a lot of erasing. It also encourages the student to "draw boldly, without fear of mistakes".
He goes on to say that saving all the overlays enables the student to recall any part of any drawing and put it to good use if need be, because nothing's been erased. Lastly, he assures us that all that's needed is a pad of semitransparent typewriter paper and a fairly soft five-cent pencil. (Remember this was written in 1939.) So much for expensive art supplies!
One can see from the lesson shown here that it's possible to arrive at Figure 5 from Figure 1, but it's not as easy as it seems, and one can get frustrated trying to master this seemingly simple technique. The back of the book has cut-out shapes which one can fasten together and "pose" which I haven't bothered to try yet, as I can't quite see how flat, two-dimensional shapes can be made to resemble a human figure in action. I've reproduced them below for anyone wanting to give it a try.


One further note. When you read an artist's biography, it's a great help to read their biographies online as well. Wikipedia gives a pretty good account of the fundamentals. It's like reading Cliff Notes, with all the major events, dates and places presented in an orderly fashion. One can then cross reference this factual summary with the writer's own embellished account!
I highly recommend reading artists' biographies. Reading about the experiences of other artists makes me realize that creating art is universal, with the same obstacles to overcome and the same achievements to celebrate. The Internet has made everything available with just the click of a button, so it's easy to get your hands on just about any book you can think of. Obscure titles are being reprinted at a fraction of the out-of-print versions, so look on Amazon and other booksellers' websites. My favorite place for finding obscure titles is, but when searching you have to be very accurate when typing in the fields. Any misspelling produces a "sorry, no such book" message. I'm a terrible speller and am constantly having to revise my searches.
Books of interest: Cecil Aldin, Time I was Dead, Munnings, The Start, The Second Burst and The Finish, Lionel Edwards, Reminiscences of a Sporting Artist, G.D. Armour, Bridle & Brush.

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