During the 19th century in England there was a growing love for domestic animals and many artists received commissions to portray them. Though there were hundreds of artists who painted pictures of animal during this period, only a handful dedicated their lives to this pursuit and George Armfield was one of them.
Whether it was a group of gun dogs at rest before or after the hunt, a pet King Charles Spaniel in a landscape or terriers on the hunt his animals are portrayed as regal and charming - characteristics that very few artists could emulate. His ability to render his subjects realistically and three?dimensionally created a great demand for his work and he was, and still is, among England’s finest animal artists.
George Armfield Smith (the name he was known until the year 1840) was born in Wales (actually Bristol: according to Armfield family information). His father, the portrait painter William Armfield Hobday (1771-1831), had a studio at 54, Pall Mall, London, and from his father, George Armfield obtained any artistic education he may have received.
This probably was not very systematic, and, we may suppose, did not suffice to reveal the considerable artistic talent the boy possessed, for, so far from encouraging the taste for drawing which he displayed at an early age, his father apprenticed him to a maker of fishing tackle (Armfield was probably apprenticed to Maria Ustonson of 205 Fleet St., London, who later became William Armfield Hobday's 2nd wife, and who was the mother of Armfield's half-brother, Alfred Hobday).
It may be that George's early promise was overshadowed by that of his brother William, for William was given a regular art education, and was sent to Rome to continue his studies. George did not serve his full term of apprenticeship. Before he was sixteen years old he devoted himself to painting, and, as his works found ready sale, his career as an artist was assured.
He seems to have been fortunate beyond the majority of youthful painters; he knew no years of struggle for recognition; he found patrons at once, and made a comfortable livelihood, being able to keep his horse almost from boyhood. He married when only seventeen or eighteen years of age, stronger proof, perhaps, of indiscretion than sufficiency of income!
The earliest records show that George Armfield was living at 16, Lamb’s Conduit Street during the mid to late 1830’s and he exhibited his first painting, Lion, a Newfoundland dog, the property of R. Barnes, Esq., at the Royal Academy (R.A.) in 1836 under his family name Smith. Among the other works exhibited at the R.A. were Fox Prowling (1837); Dog and rabbit (1838); Don, a celebrated dog of the artist (1844); The Reaper’s dogs (1850) and Waiting for a Bite (1856). Through he 1830’s he continued to exhibit at the R.A. under the name Smith, however in 1840 he dropped the name Smith and began to use the name Armfield.
He first exhibited at the British Institution in 1839 when he showed two pictures, the Study of a Dog's Head and Terrier chasing a Rabbit. These works must have attracted notice, for in the SPORTING MAGAZINE of the following year, 1840, we find the first of a long series of his pictures, which were engraved for that publication.
In 1840 he moved to Elm Cottage, Hayling, Hampstead - living there for just one year. During the next 20 years he moved quite often, living in Hoxton, Clapham, Camberwell, Larkhall Rise and Wandsworth.
From 1836 -1862 he exhibited 37 works at the R.A. and it appears that he exhibited his first work, A Practical Lesson, at the Royal Society of British Artists (R.B.A.) in 1850. He continued to exhibit at the R.B.A. until 1875; displaying some 42 works. In all, he exhibited over 100 paintings at the major London exhibition halls during his lifetime.
His services were in great demand, to make portraits of horses and hounds, and he was a frequent guest at country houses; on one occasion he spent three months at Earl Fitzwilliam’s, painting portraits in the stable and kennel. George Armfield's success as a painter of animals was largely due to the love of them, which was the salient point in his character; he always had a miniature "zoo" at his house, and possessed wonderful influence over all animals. Somewhat curiously, he was at the same time an ardent sportsman, and delighted in cock fighting and dog fighting, as well as in shooting, hunting and racing.
Among his possessions were a chestnut mare, winner of numerous matches, and a famous bull terrier named "Billy." He was very fond of hunting, and was a remarkably fine horseman. Dr. R.W. Leftwich, to Temple Chambers, writes of him: "Armfield was not only a painter of animals, but he could make them do anything. One of the finest riders I ever knew, I remember seeing him make his horse jump over a large bonfire. On one occasion he rode up Regent Street on an apparently lame horse, amid the jeers of the bus drivers, right in front of the Horse Guards; but when the band struck up he made the horse dance to the music, and an officer rode up to him and offered any money he liked to ask for the horse.”
Dr. Leftwich, who knew Armfield during the last thirty years of his life, owns a silver cup won by the artist in a point-to-point race. A sporting match undertaken by him attracted a good deal of attention at the time. He backed himself to ride an old circus mare a mile over hurdles, dismounting and remounting at each hurdle, against two good runners, Pudney and Jackson, who were to run each half a mile. Armfield nearly lost his wager, owing to the fact that the mare became excited and he had difficulty in remounting after the last hurdle.
He had a great love of the prize-ring, and was an intimate friend of the famous Tom Sayers, with whom he used to attend race meetings; his associates, indeed, were always sporting men, and he had few friends if any, among men of his own calling. Armfield made money easily, and for many years, says Dr. Leftwich, he, earned 1000 pounds a year; but he spent as easily as he earned. In his careless, openhandedness he seems to have resembled George Morland [who was a friend of his father's], for when he was ‘in the money’ he would give away bank notes where any other man would have given silver. Unlike Morland, however, he could apply himself steadily to work.
He used to bet very heavily and once lost 500 pounds at a race meeting that he attended with his friend Tom Sayers. On the day after the races he went to his studio and allowed himself neither rest nor amusement, until he had earned 500 pounds, to make up for his betting losses. He was a rapid worker, and, as the list of exhibits at the British Artists' tells, obtained fair prices for his pictures. Dogs, usually sporting dogs, figure largely in Armfield's works, and he painted them with remarkable skill and insight; his foxes, otters, deer and rabbits also display close study and his gift of portraying animal character.
His best period extended from 1840 to about 1869, and during these years his output was large. About 1870 his sight began to fail, and in 1872 he submitted to an operation on one of his eyes at Guy's Hospital, when Dr. Bader removed the lens. The operation was only partially successful, and his powers rapidly declined, he became the victim of fits of acute depression, in one of which he attempted to take his own life. He recovered from the self-inflicted wound, and continued to paint, but was only able to work with the aid of a powerful glass and on small canvases.
So greatly had his powers of earning decreased, that in 1893 a pension of 20 pounds per annum was granted him by the Royal Academy; he died, however, before drawing the first installment of it. George Armfield was married three times. As already stated, he was very young when he took his first wife; by her he had no children; by his second wife he had one daughter, and by the third, twelve children, one of whom, George [this may in fact be the artist that we know as Edward], followed in his father's footsteps as a painter of animals, more especially dogs. The painter died at Clapham in August 1893, and was buried at Norwood.
Works by Armfield can be found in many public and private collections including the Walker Art Gallery and the Glasgow Art Gallery.
Most of the information included in this biography was taken from a letter we received from Mrs. Beryl Kerrigan, who is a great granddaughter of George Armfield (the actual author of the biographical study is unknown).