Edward Armitage (1817 – 1896)

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The Festival of Esther, 1865

Edward Armitage was a Victorian era painter whose work focused on historical, classical and biblical subjects. He came from a family of wealthy Yorkshire industrialists, the eldest of seven sons of James Armitage (1793-1872) and Anne Elizabeth Armitage née Rhodes (1788-c1834), of Farnley Hall, just south of Leeds, Yorkshire. His great-grandfather James (1730-1803) bought Farnley Hall from Sir Thomas Danby in 1799 and in 1844 four Armitage brothers, including his father James, founded the Farnley Ironworks, utilising the coal, iron and fireclay on their estate. His brother Thomas Rhodes Armitage founded the Royal National Institute of the Blind.

Armitage’s art training was undertaken in Paris, where he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in October 1837. He studied under the history painter, Paul Delaroche, who at that time was at the height of his fame. Armitage was one of four students selected to assist Delaroche with the fresco Hemicycle in the amphitheatre of the Palais des Beaux-Arts, when he reputedly modelled for the head of Masaccio. Whilst still in Paris, he exhibited “Prometheus Bound” in 1842, which a contemporary critic described as ‘well drawn but brutally energetic’.



In 1843 Armitage returned to London, where he entered the competition for the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament at Westminster, the old Houses of Parliament having been destroyed by fire in 1834. To organise and oversee this project, a Royal Commission had been appointed in 1841, the President of which was Queen Victoria’s new Consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Decorations were to be executed in fresco and were to illustrate subjects from British history or from the works of Spenser, Shakespeare or Milton. Competitions were held for appropriate designs (‘cartoons’), with a number of leading artists commissioned to take part. The first competition entries were unveiled in Westminster Hall in the summer of 1843 and attracted considerable attention from the public. Armitage’s cartoon, “The Landing of Julius Caesar in Britain”, secured one of the three first prizes of £300. He won a further prize in 1845 in a subsequent Westminster competition for his cartoon “The Spirit of Religion”. Although neither of these cartoons was executed in fresco, Armitage did execute two frescoes in the Poets’ Gallery off the Upper Waiting Hall: “The Thames and its Tributaries” (also referred to as “The Personification of the Thames”) (1852), from the poetry of Alexander Pope and “The Death of Marmion” (1854), from Sir Walter Scott’s poem. Unfortunately frescoes were ill-suited to the atmosphere of 19th-century London, and many started to disintegrate almost as soon as they were completed.

Armitage won another first prize in 1847 for his oil painting “The Battle of Meanee”, which was subsequently purchased by Queen Victoria. This was said to have been carefully researched, Sir Charles Napier, who played a prominent role at Meanee, having lent Armitage his own sketches of the locality.

In 1848 Armitage exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy when he showed “Henry VIII” and “Catherine Parr” and “Trafalgar”. He continued to send regular contributions most years until his death.

He married Catherine Laurie Barber in 1853, who was herself an artist. Armitage was one of the first artists to settle in the St. John’s Wood area of London, where his friends included other artists living in that neighborhood.


Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarian, 1875

The art dealer Ernest Gambart sent Armitage to the Crimea in 1855 to make on-the-spot sketches for pictures including “The Stand of the Guards at Inkerman” and “The Heavy Cavalry Charge at Balaclava”, which were shown at Gambart’s French gallery in the spring of 1856. He exhibited “Souvenir of Scutari” at the Royal Academy in 1857 (now in Tyne and Wear Museums).

Armitage was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1867 and a full member in 1872, and in 1875 he was appointed Professor and Lecturer on painting. Examples of his work include: “Retribution” (1858) (Leeds City Art Gallery), “St Francis before Pope Innocent III” (1859) (fresco originally in Church of St John the Evangelist, Islington, later replaced by the painting Institution of the Franciscan Order, 1887), “Festival of Esther” (1865) (Royal Academy, London), ” The Remorse of Judas” (1866) (Tate Collection, London), “Herod’s Birthday Feast” (1868) (Guildhall, London), “Julian the Apostate Presiding at a Conference of Sectarians” (1875) (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), “Sea Urchins” (1882) (Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand).

His lectures to the Royal Academy were published as “Lectures on Painting” (London, 1883).

After retiring from the Royal Academy in May 1894, Armitage spent some time in Tunbridge Wells, where he died on 24 May 1896 of apoplexy and exhaustion following pneumonia. He is buried in Hove Cemetery.


Ceasar’s First Invasion of Britain, 1843


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