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An interview with Diana Armfield.

2 June 2016


I understand that you once designed wallpaper.

Yes, I was a textile designer. That is how I started. I went to the Slade for two years because the Central School where I was training, was evacuated for the War. The design department was rather makeshift, geared more towards illustration. When I returned I went to the Central School, and it was marvellous. I did textiles until 1965. I was also teaching drawing for painting at the Byam Shaw Art School. The Principal, Maurice de Sausmarez announced at the staff meeting that I was to teach painting from drawings!  I went home in a panic because I was not a painter. But Bernard made me a paint box and took me off to Arrezo for two weeks’ painting and I never looked back. I submitted my first work to the Academy in 1966 and it was hung.  It happened at a very opportune moment. I had been taking my textile designs around manufacturers, and it was very tiring. The people who initially interviewed me were themselves artists manqué and discussed the work as fellow artists, but they gradually got replaced by commercial people, who just wanted the design to fit with their commercial production. I stopped enjoying it when that happened. It wasn’t the designing I fell out of love with, but the commercial world. I wanted my designs to be a permanent contribution, not discarded after a couple of years.

Some of your wall paper designs are in the Royal Victoria and Albert Museum?

We have some hanging up here at home. But yes they have some samples. In my last year at the Central, a fellow student and I formed a partnership, ‘Armfield-Passano’, to design and print our own fabrics. I was living at that time, in a studio, with Bernard at the end of my sister and brother-in-law’s garden, so there was the space. The principal said it was not an opportunity to be missed, so I left to do that. I carried on until 1952, when our second son was born, David. Then we moved into the house! My fellow student, Roy, moved to Canada, but after a couple of years I didn’t hear a word from him, so I can only assume that he must have died.

What medium did you use when you started to paint?

I used oils, I didn’t think of anything else. But after a while it was pastel as well. Enhancing drawings is best done in pastel. I like the touch of pastel for figures also. Originally I took pastels out to do landscapes. But I seemed to find the pastel getting in my nails, and I never seemed to have the right ones with me! So I develop them from sketchbook drawings. I like the contrast of approach between the practice of oils and pastels.

You went to Venice a few times?

We went every year. There is this wonderful light thrown up from the water, that pervades everything, and no cars. It is magical. It doesn’t matter how many people have painted there, or are sitting painting there, it is still your own, that relationship. It’s one of the only subjects that Bernard and I share. We don’t want to tread on each others' toes! I gave up the musical subjects, as he was passionate about them, and he could do them a great deal better than I could. He doesn’t do flowers. Sometimes he would do a little landscape sketch, especially in the years before I established any sort of reputation.

What’s it like being married to an artist?

It’s enormously helpful, in the way that you have always got something to say about each other’s work. We meet for coffee, we meet for lunch! There is always the interest. You have got to feel in real sympathy with the other’s work to be helpful, and I should think, to remain married!

You don’t do portraits, why is that?

When I am with people I want to talk to them. I have got used to being watched in Venice, but I don’t like being watched, I think it makes one paint a little differently, perhaps with more flourish. It is distracting to be watched.

I read this quote of yours, you can tell me if it is accurate,

In my art I am always trying to express something I am admiring, the last thing I am thinking about is expressing myself.

Yes I want to honour the subject, and fix it, so it is always there. For instance, landscape is under threat, and has a balance, it has arrived at that point now and it is a miracle that is has done so.I want to cherish it, so that it can be remembered before it changes, or vanishes. There is a moment when it is in harmony, although everything is pushing and pulling. It’s actually an equilibrium rather than a harmony. I find it very strange and marvellous that the rhythms you pick up in the trees say, or the clouds, are so dynamic. Flowers particularly, are so right, that painting them is learning!

Do you think that some part of you then is expressing your feeling about the subject then?

Yes, it obviously is, but that is for other people to see, not for me to exclaim. It comes out in the painting. There is too much to do in a painting, rather than thinking about oneself. That is one of the nourishing things about painting, this not being concerned with oneself. It is also one of the dangers! You are perfectly alright while you are painting, but when you get up you realise you are jolly cold and stiff. I can’t paint unless I am totally absorbed though.

Do you ever get blocked?

I can do something jolly badly! Sometimes if I haven’t been drawing for a while, it takes some time. One should actually draw all the time.  I haven’t been blocked thinking what to paint for years and years though.

What has been the greatest challenge for you as an artist?

Getting it right! Getting a fluid touch. I recognise the touch that is in harmony with the natural world. I try to get that rhythm that comes from nature. Sometimes I can lose that flow. I seldom abandon a painting though. I go on searching for that flow until it returns.

Has painting kept you young?

It’s certainly kept me going! It has also given me a very vulnerable  back. Be warned!

Would you ever stop?

No I will keep going until the end!  Bernard also paints every day, and although he says he’s not going to, half an hour later there he is at his easel!


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