Maxwell Armfield applied his mastery of many of the traditional skills of Arts and Crafts artists, including tempera, to a highly individual vision characterised by a poetically intense precision.
Born into a Quaker family on 5 October 1881, Maxwell Armfield grew up in Ringwood, Hampshire, and was educated at Sidcot and Leighton Park. As a student at Birmingham School of Art, he was influenced by his fellow students, Henry Payne and Joseph Southall, and by the Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the local art gallery. He visited Italy at the suggestion of his teacher, Arthur Gaskin, and was drawn particularly to early fresco painting. In 1902, he moved to Paris to further his studies at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and the Atelier Colarossi; while there he shared a studio with Keith Henderson, Gaston Lachaise and Norman Wilkinson ‘of Four Oaks’. His career was launched, in 1904, when he sold his Swinburne-inspired painting, Faustine, to the Musée du Luxembourg.
On his return to England in 1905, Armfield began to establish himself in London as a master of many arts and crafts, and of symbolic subjects, in the late Pre-Raphaelite mould.
Three years later, he held his first solo show, at the Carfax Gallery, and married Constance Smedley, a writer with whom he would often collaborate. Following their move to Gloucestershire, the Armfields were often visited by the American artist, E McKnight Kauffer, who enthused them with his love of Cézanne and Van Gogh, and his interest in the art of the Native Americans. They moved to the United States in 1915, and worked there for seven years. In 1918, they ran the Department in Stage Design at Berkeley University.
On their return to England in 1922, the Armfields continued to develop their theatrical interests, opening the Greenleaf Theatre Studio, in London in 1927; publishing a series of ‘Greenleaf Rhythmic Plays’; and producing their own pageant play, The King’s Progress, for performance by the English Folk Dance Society at the Royal Albert Hall. Armfield also designed his own house, at Ibsley, Hampshire, ‘on the same proportion as was used in the Parthenon’. During this period, he and Constance helped found the New Forest Group of Painters (1924). In 1939, the Armfields moved to an old inn at West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, where in 1941 Constance died. Armfield then returned to London.
As a painter, Armfield made increasing use of tempera, a medium that suited his meticulous handling and historicist sympathies. He became a member of the Tempera Society (by 1909) and, among other books, published A Manual of Tempera Painting (1930) and Tempera Painting Today (1946). He was also elected to the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours (ARWS 1931, RWS 1941, HRWS 1961) and the Architectural League of New York. Though neglected for many years after the Second World War, he lived to see a revival of interest in his work before his death on 23 January 1972, at the age of 91. A memorial show was organised by Southampton Art Gallery in 1978.