Trained as a silversmith and then at the first Government School of Design at Somerset House, Henry Hugh Armstead was very conscious of the decorative aspects of sculpture. He helped bridge the gulf between the academic discipline of his contemporaries and the youger artists of the 'New Sculpture' group. 'St Michael and the Serpent' or 'Satan Dismayed', as it is also known, won first prize in the Art Union sculpture competition in 1851, the year of the sculptor's debut at the Royal Academy. It was cast by the Art Union in a small edition in 1852, and again ten years later. A highly dramatic theme, popular at the time, the composition depicts the 'transformation' scene in Book X of Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), when the fallen angels are turned into snakes:
'So having said, awhile he stood, expecting Their universal shout and high applause to fill his ears, when contrary he hears on all sides from innumerable tongues A dismal universal hiss, the sound of public scorn.'