Maxwell Ashby Armfield was a painter, illustrator and writer, central in the Arts and Crafts movement focused around Birmingham in the early 20th Century. Born at Ringwood, Hampshire, he studied at Birmingham School of Art under Henry Payne (1868-1940) and Arthur Gaskin (1862-1928), where he came into contact with the Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist movements which influenced his decorative style. Additionally he was taught tempera painting by Joseph Southall (1861-1944) at his studio in Edgbaston. In 1902 he moved to Paris to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, an independent academy which rejected the strict rules of academic painting set by the École des Beaux-Arts, and shaped his anti-academic illustrative style. Following his marriage in 1909 to the author and playwright Constance Smedley (1876-1941), the two became close collaborators combining design, illustration, text and theatre.
The majority of the present group of drawings were executed to illustrate Sylvia’s Travels, written by his wife and published in 1911. Sylvia, the daughter of a woodcutter who lives in a remote woodland, befriends a Magic Bird which comes to her cottage in the night and encourages her to explore the world. Travelling through the country which is largely populated by animals, Sylvia stays in the Castle as the guest of the King and Queen and defeats the monstrous Hobby Beasts whose spell has imprisoned the Princess Hildur, before returning to her father. Perfectly demonstrating the Armfields’ symbiotic working relationship, Sylvia’s Travels contains sixteen coloured plates and two half-tone plates tipped in, and twenty-one line illustrations incorporated into the text. The eleven watercolours included here account for over half of the full colour plates.
Two of the drawings were intended for The Armfields’ Animal-Book, published in 1922 with eight colour plates following the success of their Flower Book. Neither of the present drawings were in fact published, with Armfield choosing much simpler compositions for the final work.
The first drawing of the group is an illustration to the medieval romance Aucassin and Nicolette, translated from the old French by Eugene Mason, and published in 1910. With its elaborately decorative style and flat perspective it perfectly captures the era of the text.