Northern light — Brian Maye on painter Arthur Armstrong

Among the vanguard of Irish art in the postwar years

In this paper (February 3rd, 1998), Brian Fallon wrote that “a highly interesting group of Northern painters . . . were among the vanguard of Irish art in the postwar years”. They included Gerard Dillon, George Campbell, Daniel O’Neill and Arthur Armstrong. The latter, who was younger than the others mentioned, was born 100 years ago on January 12th.

He was born in Carrickfergus, Co Antrim, one of six children of James Charlton Armstrong, who was a house painter and decorator, and Margaret Howard.

Later in life, he recalled his father painting pictures from the remnants of his paint from various decorating jobs. His family moved to Belfast shortly after he was born.

Following attendance at Strandtown Primary School, he went to Queen’s University in the early 1940s, initially studying political science before switching to architecture.


He left after two years and, being interested in art, he attended Belfast School of Art for about six months. There he got to know Gerard Dillon and, through him, George Campbell and Daniel O’Neill. Rebecca Minch, who wrote the entry on Armstrong in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, described him as largely self-taught as an artist and said that his closeness to Dillon and Campbell, who were some years older than he was, “proved to be the most important factor in his development”. All of them associated with the Ukrainian artist and teacher Paul Nietsche, who lived in Belfast from 1936, and who stressed to them the importance of personal expression.

From the time he left college, Armstrong worked in the Belfast Gas Office and supported his widowed mother with his earnings. He had saved some money, and in 1946, he gave up this work with the hope of painting full time. A set of etchings that he and Campbell had done were published and he took up designing work with Ulster Laces in Portadown. Eventually, in 1957, he moved to London, where he hoped to find greater artistic opportunities. Dillon and Campbell were already living there and he lodged with Dillon’s sister.

He found he couldn’t make a living from his painting in London either and had to work in a labour exchange office. However, a scholarship awarded to him by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), a forerunner of the Arts Council of Great Britain, enabled him to travel in Spain, which he continued to do for the next decade, often visiting Campbell, who lived a lot of the time there. The CEMA gallery in Belfast staged his first solo exhibition in 1961.

The following year he moved to Dublin, having already had work exhibited there at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art in 1957 and 1958; he continued to exhibit there each year between 1961 and 1965. His works were also frequently included in the Oireachtas Exhibition, and he received the Douglas Hyde gold medal in 1968. During these years also, he had work shown in Dublin’s Hendriks Gallery and Tom Caldwell Gallery. Rebecca Minch records that he had more than 70 solo exhibitions throughout his career. In the late 1960s, he designed posters for the Abbey Theatre and in 1969, he and Campbell and Dillon designed sets for Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock at the Abbey. He also taught painting part time at the National College of Art.

Elected an associate member of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) in 1969, he became a full member in 1972 (exhibiting there regularly till 1977), and the following year was awarded the Art in Context prize by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. A painter of mainly landscape and still life, “he had established himself as one of the leading landscape painters in Ireland,” according to Rebecca Minch, who said that he produced some of his best work during this period.

“His paintings from the late 1950s moved towards an abstract style, more concerned with a play of textures and an interlocking of quantities and areas of colour” (see Although he painted mainly landscapes, he never saw himself as a painter of particular views, Minch believes, instead responding to “the abstract qualities of a scene”. She too pointed out that he saw elements such as sea, rocks or sky “as a series of interlocking textures to be rendered expressively in oil paint”. He particularly loved the Irish western coastline, Roundstone in Galway being a favourite base for painting trips.

The Arts Council of Northern Ireland held a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1981 and many major public and corporate Irish collections feature paintings by him. He shared a house with Gerard Dillon in Ranelagh in Dublin for many years. His good friends Dillon and Campbell both died prematurely in the 1970s. He himself never married and died in a Dublin hospital on January 13th, 1996, a day after his 72nd birthday.