Fascinating 20th century artist was commissioned to paint Royal Hotel’s bar murals

The Rape of Persephone by artist John Armstrong
The Rape of Persephone by artist John Armstrong

by Jeannie Swales

In the canon of great British artists of the 20th century, the name of John Armstrong isn’t one that crops up too regularly.

But his work is fascinating: difficult to categorise, influenced by both the Surrealist movement and by the theatre – he is perhaps better known as a designer of theatre sets, film costumes (including for Alexander Korda’s great historical epics The Private Life of Henry VIII and Rembrandt) and commercial posters.

Born in 1893 in Hastings, Armstrong was the son of a parson, which may have influenced his future interest in religious subjects. Back on civvy street after serving in the Royal Field Artillery in World War I, he earned his money however he could, including decorating lampshades for Heal’s, helping with theatre scenery and costume design, and painting murals in private houses. One of his mural clients was Lillian Courtauld, the wife of Samuel Courtauld, founder of the Courtauld Institute of Art: he decorated their Portman Square home.

He had met Lillian through their mutual friendship with the great acting team of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, who also introduced him to Charles’ brother, Scarborough hotelier Tom Laughton.  

When Tom decided that the Royal Hotel, which he and Charles owned jointly, needed some updating – “there was a need”, he says in his book Pavilions by the Sea, “for a bar catering for both sexes” – it was John he turned to.

“He was a striking looking man, tall, slim, and ascetic. He had uniquely individual taste, which showed in his dress and in everything he did. His most characteristic feature was a very special sense of humour.

“He did the murals at night, locking himself in the bar. All that he asked was that we should not look in until his work was finished and that we should keep him supplied with bottled Guinness. It took him three nights and three cases of Guinness.”

The finished bar, with a gorgeous scheme based on polished pewter and rose-tinted mirrors – Armstrong disliked the harsher polished chrome and shining mirrors that were fashionable at the time – was a huge success and Laughton further commissioned him to decorate the Royal’s ballroom suite.

John Armstrong died in 1973 after suffering from Parkinson’s for some years.

There are five of his paintings in the Scarborough Collections, bequeathed to the town by Tom Laughton. Our exhibit this week, The Rape of Persephone, is currently on display downstairs at Scarborough Art Gallery. If you come along to see it, you could also look at the work of some vastly talented local artists - the East Coast Open exhibition is upstairs at the Gallery from Saturday January 24 until Sunday March 15. For further information, please call the gallery on (01723) 374753, or visit the Scarborough Museums Trust website: www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.com.