Detail from The Canal, Amsterdam, 1889, James McNeill Whistler, The Hunterian, University of Glasgow


Thomas Armstrong

Alias: Tom
Nationality: English
Date of birth: 1832.10.19
Place of birth: Manchester
Date of death: 1911.04.22
Place of death: Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire
Category: painter


Thomas Armstrong was an English painter, designer and administrator of art education. He married Alice Brine in 1881. They had a son Ambrose who died in 1894 at the age of eleven.


Although he initially sought a career in business in Manchester, in 1853 Armstrong became a pupil of Ary Scheffer in Paris. There he became close friends with E. J. Poynter, T. R. Lamont and Whistler. Their bohemian lifestyle in Paris from 1853 to 1856 was described by George Du Maurier in his novel Trilby (1894), in which Armstrong appears as the character Taffy.

Following this period Armstrong travelled and painted in Europe and Algiers, settling in London around 1860. His early paintings showed a concern for social themes. However, in the late 1860s, influenced by the ideas of the Aesthetic Movement, he turned to painting classically-inspired figurative paintings and decorative schemes without any strong narrative content, e.g. Woman with Lilies (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne). He exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery from its inception in 1877 until 1881. From around 1876 he concentrated primarily on portraiture and landscape subjects.

He was a member of the Arts Club from 1866 until 1878. Whistler was also a member and the two men kept in contact during this period. A letter from Armstrong to Whistler dates from 1868 and between 1874 and 1877 Whistler made a number of references to his old friend in his letters. According to the diarist Alan Cole, Armstrong was 'delighted' with Whistler's 'Ten O'Clock Lecture' in 1885 (#00642.

From 1881 until 1898 Armstrong acted as Director of the Art Division of the Department of Science and Art at the South Kensington Museum. He was responsible for the organization of art education throughout Britain, and also acquired original works of art and replicas for the museum collection. In 1893/95 Whistler wrote to Alan S. Cole to ask whether Armstrong would be the correct man to approach concerning the museum's possible purchasing of some of the work of the French sculptor Auguste Clesinger (#09013).


Boyles, F. G., 'Mr Thomas Armstrong', Art Journal, 1891, pp. 271-73; Records of The Arts Club, London; Lamont, L. M. (ed.), Thomas Armstrong, C.B.: A Memoir, 1832-1911, London, 1912; Bénézit, E., Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, 8 vols, Paris, 1956-61; Smith, A., Thomas Armstrong (1832-1911): His Works in their Context, 1852-1881, dissertation, University of London, 1985; Young, Andrew McLaren, Margaret F. MacDonald, Robin Spencer, and Hamish Miles, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London, 1980 ; MacDonald, Margaret F., James McNeill Whistler. Drawings, Pastels and Watercolours. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven and London, 1995 ; Newall, Christopher, 'Thomas Armstrong', The Grove Dictionary of Art Online, ed. L. Macy.