Man with a thousand faces

Peter Armstrong’s Brixton home

The writer Joe Orton famously followed a similar decorative régime to that of Peter Armstrong. The walls of his flat – situated at a distance of some seven miles and 40 years from here, in 1960s Islington – were covered in a dense collage of pictures. These, mostly by Old Masters, were almost exclusively culled from books at the public library. Unfortunately, Orton also had a penchant for adding salacious images to particularly stuffy volumes, returning them to the library shelves in order to watch the reactions of unsuspecting browsers. These misdeeds brought the full might of the Metropolitan Police crashing down on him; in 1962, charged with stealing 72 library books, and wilfully damaging numerous others – including the removal of no fewer than 1,653 plates from art books – Orton was sentenced to six months in prison.

Peter Armstrong is, however, not likely to meet the same fate as Orton. His Brixton terrace has a similarly intricate quilt of images covering the walls and ceiling, but this has not been achieved through malicious damage to public property. “It started about 12 years ago,” the painter explains (he has lived here for a good 20 years). “I had a waist-high pile of fashion magazines that I didn’t know what to do with.” So he rifled through them in search of pictures that particularly appealed, then plastered them all over his living room-cum-studio in one mammoth decorating session. The vintage and provenance of the pictures is immediately apparent, in that Linda Evangelista is a constant presence (Armstrong considers her the most super of all the supermodels). Other significant faces include those of Elizabeth Taylor, Oliver Reed, Marilyn Monroe and Leigh Bowery – a friend of Armstrong’s during his days on the Eighties club circuit. The original layer of photos, which remains underneath all the subsequent additions, is grouped according to colour; it sweeps round the living room in a still discernible spectrum, from the monochrome mantel area through blue, aqua, green, yellow, orange and finally red. Over years, the accretion of images has slightly diluted this colour scheme, but in its place it has thrown up intriguing juxtapositions. One of the Bowerys, for instance, his cheeks perforated with safety pins, is complemented by a newly acquired picture of the Queen with a face full of metal piercings (it’s a flyer for a local fetish club, if you must know). Elsewhere, a tin-hatted Vietcong has had his eyes replaced by those of a Buddhist idol. “When I find a new picture that I like, I put it straight up,” says Armstrong. “Often, it’s only later that you notice the connection with the ones around it.” All over the house there are tottering great piles of untapped magazines, with as-yet unselected photos waiting between their covers like would-be starlets hovering in the wings at an audition.

“Teenage girls do the same thing in their bedrooms, with posters of pop stars,” says Armstrong. “With boys, it’s football teams. They put up so many pictures that you can’t see the wall any more.” Armstrong’s adolescent-bedroom analogy is accurate, but his home has a focused intensity that goes much further than the fruits of some pubescent crush. His creative use of recycling puts one in mind of a glossy-magazine version of the Wombles’ newsprint-lined burrow. Furthermore, Armstrong has something else in common with his (fictional, mammalian) fellow south Londoners. He makes good use of the things that he finds – things that the everyday folks leave behind. All the furniture in the house was found on the street; that is to say, it was not found “on the street” in the abstract sense, but actually on the very road where he lives. Sofas, chairs, cabinets, beds – it is amazing what the denizens of Brixton chuck out. “I just couldn’t bring myself to pay £250 for a chair,” remarks the painter. Nor are the objets trouvés limited to furniture. Armstrong is an ardent beachcomber, and various assemblages of flotsam and jetsam on the mantelpiece and the tabletops bear witness to his regular trips to the northeast coast of Scotland, where his parents now live.

Unorthodox wallcoverings abound elsewhere in the building, too. Baking foil has been pasted up in the kitchen – appropriately culinary in feel, it also creates an illusion of depth behind the work surfaces. On the landing is a patchwork of square samples of Katherine Morris’s hand-printed wallpapers. The study features a collage of contortionist porn, downloaded from the internet, as well as a portrait of Marilyn as the Mona Lisa. This latter painting is an early piece by Armstrong’s friend and fellow artist Steven Moore, who lives nearby and uses a room on the first floor as his studio. Here, Moore’s textured, circular abstracts hang on white walls suffused with brilliant sunlight; the contrast to the almost subterranean feel of the Ortonesque parlour below, where Armstrong paints, could not be more pronounced.

“This house is all about putting things on display,” Armstrong explains. “Why keep them in a magazine or in a drawer, where you never see them, when you can put them on the wall and see them every day?” Aside from letting the house be used as an occasional venue for videos or photo shoots – indie-dance rockers Primal Scream were recent visitors – Armstrong paints full-time, and being surrounded by David Bowie album covers, Géricault’s portrait of a madman and thousands of other images clearly helps him to work. Dotted among these visual stimuli are passages, often handwritten, which Armstrong finds particularly inspiring. A large group of them, often somewhat morose in tone, is pinned to the living-room door, so that if Armstrong fancies a quick read through Sonnet CXXIX before he leaves the room, he has it within easy reach.

Wombles and Angry Young Men notwithstanding, there is something of the quality of a shrine about this house. The bare boards and fragments of driftwood evoke those Catholic grottoes where every available surface flutters with devotional imagery and inspirational texts. While Armstrong’s home is notably more Evangelista than Evangelical, the walls nevertheless boast their fair share of religious iconography alongside the fashion icons, including a new take on the concept of “muscular Christianity” – the superimposition of Christ’s head on a shiny Charles Atlas-style body. “I’m getting religious in my old age,” laughs Armstrong. This new-found piety is only partially borne out by a crucifix hanging near the front door, where a Post-It note stuck to the Saviour’s waxy legs offers a wry comment on the Second Coming: “Back in five minutes.”

First published in World of Interiors issue 242. Reproduced with permission.

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