“Like a portrait painter with their sitters, I have the feeling of a real relationship with the flowers I paint”

Published 1 March 2021

100-year-old artist Diana Armfield RA writes about the joy of painting the flowers in her garden.

  • When painting landscape, I’m hoping to grasp and interpret the interaction of all the forces acting on a chosen scene, everything from benign growth to human-made improvement or pollution, everything that has brought it to this day of balance. I draw attention to landscape because we have this enormous responsibility to cherish nature, and that is just as true for my still-lifes of flowers – they seem as eloquent as people and needing as much care.

    Like a portrait painter with their sitters, I have the feeling of a real relationship with the flowers I paint. I’m in the same world as them once the painting begins. It doesn’t surprise me that HRH talks to his plants, and it probably does them good, by giving them a boost of carbon dioxide.

  • Diana Armfield RA in her studio in Kew

    Diana Armfield RA in her studio in Kew

    © Anne Purkiss

  • When I started to paint, I didn’t see my way to painting flowers. I had always admired my uncle Maxwell Armfield’s still-life works, their infallible geometry, but I couldn’t follow quite such a disciplined approach as his. Then I attended an exhibition of Allan Gwynne Jones RA – in the early 1970s – and my attention was drawn to just one little painting. A rose: rich in paint, tender and certain. I got going for good the very next day. It is still such a joy for me to paint flowers decades later, at the age of 100.

    My north-facing garden at my home in Kew produces superb camellias, magnolias and amelanchiers, all flowering together, and when the sun reaches the garden in March there is quite a variety of other blooms. At my home in Wales, it is the bank by the house that produces a magical spangle of spring flowers to take the breath away and provides me with many a bunch. Then there are roses by the door and the wild flowers that grow on the verges, before the council mow.

  • I draw attention to landscape because we have this enormous responsibility to cherish nature.

  • In both places I go round picking my choice, more or less arranging them in my hand, and already noticing which flowers will dominate and which will counter or support in a composition. If we are leaving either home, I will pick prime blooms for a bunch in a jam jar for the car. If the blooms survive, they will often be the first subject for me to paint on arrival, still in their jar. And where to place the bunch? I walk around with it, trying it here and there. I sometimes occupy the kitchen with it, but it soon gets in the way. Best of all is to give up for a few hours and then discover that it is looking marvellous where it is!

    On other occasions, the big decision is whether to place the arrangement in a jug or a pot that has its own painted decoration. I have many decorated vessels that were found or acquired on painting trips, usually taken twice a year with my husband Bernard Dunstan RA. Sometimes at the easel now I recreate the places we visited; Venice, Australia, or where our son Bob lived with his family, in Wyoming. Those works are distilled memories, unashamedly nostalgic yet satisfying and a solace to me.

  • Diana Armfield, Last Nasturtium of the Season

    Diana Armfield, Last Nasturtium of the Season, 2020.

    © Anne Purkiss.

  • As an alternative to a decorated pot, there is the beguiling quality of glass, which gives the play of the stalks, one behind another, and the way they catch the light. Then there will be reflections, refractions and distortions of the shapes, all marvellous to look at, and fascinating to paint. Yet if I go for the pot, I’ve got the memories, and the enjoyable tease of resolving the relationship between the painted flowers on the pot and the real ones inside. Another challenge for a close-up still-life: turning the three dimensions we see onto the two-dimensional panel, while keeping the proportions right for the container. In a work I finished before Christmas (Last Nasturtium of the Season; above) I decided on a small painted jug, with the sense that the blue pattern made a fine contrast to the nasturtium and anchored the flowers in the rectangle.

    For smaller still-lifes, I work from my paint box instead of the easel, using board rather than canvas to give me flexibility as to size and proportion. The box goes with me everywhere, heavy with loaded paint tubes and brushes, medium and palette knife, just in case something irresistible presents itself.

    From the Autumn 2020 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA. ‘Diana Armfield: A Lyrical Eye’, by Andrew Lambirth, is published in March (Paul Holberton) and ‘Diana Armfield: A Century of Painting’ is upcoming at Browse & Darby, London.

  • See Diana Armfield RA discuss her life and work with her husband, the painter Bernard Dunstan RA

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    Married Royal Academicians Diana Armfield and Bernard Dunstan have been painting alongside each other for 65 years. What’s the secret to the success of their long partnership? Diana Armfield tells us about a life of shared creativity, compromise, and mutual support.

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