John Rutherford Armstrong was born in Sussex in 1893. From 1912 he read law briefly before a short period of study at the St John’s Wood School of Art, both before and after the war. He was a successful soldier during the First World War and he found it difficult to adjust to civilian life when he was demobilised. For a time he suffered economic hardship until he acquired work designing scenery and costumes for the bohemian theatre club, the Cave of Harmony. This led to further commissions to design theatre sets, friezes and decorative paintings.
Armstrong’s first solo exhibition was at the Leicester Galleries in 1928 which brought him recognition and some critical success. By the end of the decade he had discovered the work of Giorgio de Chirico who influenced his own work and he was chosen as one of the group of surrealist and abstract artists who formed Unit One in 1933. Alongside painting, he earned a living working as a designer, designing sets and costumes for theatre and film as well as for advertising posters. In 1938, he had an exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery and, from 1940 onwards, he worked as an official war artist. Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, he produced a series of symbolic paintings which merged his interests in architecture, theatre, religion, mythology and politics. In the last two decades of his working life, he moved onto other subjects including a series of paintings based on the story of Icarus.
Armstrong was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1966. His work tended to show symbolist qualities in an abstract, often surrealist style. His talent was made known to an even wider audience following his death, when he was given a memorial exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1975.