Diana Armfield RA on her art epiphany

The artist's poignant response to changing circumstances

Published 9 December 2014

As her husband’s health began to fail, painter Diana Armfield RA began to paint French and Italian scenes using sketches she had made during their travels.

  • “One is allowed to relive the past,” says Diana Armfield. “That is what the past is for.” Nostalgia is not a distraction to the 94-year-old painter – it is an essential part of her working process.

    Ten years ago, the painting trips Armfield had been making to Europe with her husband, the artist Bernard Dunstan RA, could no longer continue due to his impaired mobility. She had an epiphany that has changed her daily painting practice: she realised that she could travel in space and time from her studio in their Richmond home to the landscapes and cityscapes they had seen in France and Italy, thanks to the drawings she had made during their travels. Her sketches of Provençal fields and Venetian piazzas, once ancillary to her impressionistic en plein air oils, became source material in themselves – paper portals through which, with the help of memory, she has produced captivating paintings. These complement Armfield’s landscapes painted in the open air in Wales, where she and Dunstan have a home, and her expressive still lifes of flowers.

    Armfield hands me a book of drawings made ten years ago, the buzz of La Serenissima’s streets reflected in their lively lines. But what I am holding is a diary rather than a sketchbook, bound in black leather and with pages of text that note visual details of places visited. “I always kept a diary on each trip,” she explains.“‘By the acts of drawing and writing these marvellous scenes have gone into my mind. Just by looking I wouldn’t have retained the images.”

    Sections of the drawings – stretches of sky or stonework – are annotated with her descriptions of the colour tones seen under the Italian sun. I ask Armfield whether she was pleased her past self had such attention to detail. “I wish they were better. I wish I had put more information into them. I’m having to use much more imagination and inventiveness than when I paint from life because, half the time, something simply isn’t there in the drawings.”

  • ‘One is allowed to relive the past. That is what the past is for.'

    Diana Armfield RA

  • One way she brings the scenes back to life is to add people who were not necessarily present in the sketches. “They help me to develop a kind of narrative for myself – perhaps I’ll paint in a man and his dog and I can feel that there’s something going on between them. The narrative allows me to live in the picture for a length of time.” For Armfield an en plein air work might be painted within one week, but when she works from drawings it takes her over six, and not because of these pictorial challenges.

    “Each day I’m working on a painting I’m back in Siena, San Gimignano or Volterra, and it’s self- indulgent – I yearn to stay there and I don’t want to take it off the easel. We started in the 1950s when the children were young, as part of camping holidays for them, and then when they grew up these trips became like a series of honeymoons. Bernard worked on his interiors in the hotel room, and then we would go out for me to paint – a place with a marvellous view, out in the wind, with a picnic. And we would draw again in the evening light, followed by a nice supper in the busy part of the city, where we would walk about in the evening. There’s no doubt they were romances.”

    This emotional attachment to her paintings has had another effect. “I don’t want to part with the pictures,” she admits, reticent about which works she will let escape for display in two group exhibitions this winter. “Of course, I also want people to see and buy them, so I am somewhat torn, but I do just want them around me.”

    Sam Phillips (@SamP_London) is Editor of RA Magazine.

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