Michael Ayrton prolifically sought artistic and intellectual expression in a multitude of forms. Like a twentieth-century ‘Renaissance Man’, he was a painter, etcher, novelist, art historian, set and costume designer, art critic for Spectator magazine (1944-6), BBC radio and television broadcaster, and illustrator. Best known for his sculpture and drawings, Ayrton preferred to simply call himself an ‘image-maker’
Born in London in 1921 to Gerald Gould a poet, essayist and critic and Barbara Ayrton; Socialist politician and Chairman of the Labour Party, Michael Ayrton worked and lived in Paris and London finally settling his home and studio in Toppesfield, north Essex. Although, in his early life, he spent some time at Heatherly’s and St. John’s Wood School of Art, Ayrton’s art education was the result of his travels in Europe and learning from artists both past and contemporary. In 1935 he absorbed works in the Albertina while residing with a relative in Vienna, and in 1939 he shared a studio with John Minton in Paris, where he was studying under French Neo-Classical painter Eugéne Bérman, and occasionally in the studio of Georgio de Chirico. On return to the UK he taught at Camberwell School of Art (1943-4) and for some time was part of the revival in landscape painting that dominated English painting in the 1940s that included Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash. In 1946 Ayrton made his first trip to Italy, which was to have a profound influence on his work that became preoccupied with reoccurring motifs in mythology, and signified a creative transfer in his practice from painting to sculpture
Ayrton’s first solo exhibition was in 1943 at Redfern Gallery, London, and significant shows include the Whitechapel Gallery, London (1955) and The Minories, Colchester (1977). Ayrton is represented in many national, regional and international collections including; Tate, The National Portrait Gallery London, Victoria and Albert Museum, British Museum, The Arts Council of Great Britain, Fitzwilliam, Cambridge, The City Art Gallery Southampton, National Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney and MoMA, New York City
Ayrton fulfilled two major outdoor sculptural commissions in his lifetime. Firstly, an outdoor labyrinth for Catskill estate in Arkville New York in 1969 that covered 1680 feet of passageways. Secondly, a 9 foot sculpture for the S.S. Kresge headquarters’ courtyard at Troy in Michigan USA in 1971.
Ayrton’s artistic transition into sculpture was influenced by his research and seminal publication on the proto-Renaissance sculptor Giovanni Pisano and a trip to Crete in 1958 which initiated his fascination with mythology. Aryon’s shift in media was a natural development; he noted ‘There are times when one’s drawings, coming out from the paper, insist on becoming sculpture, at the next stage, rather then painting’. This was marked by the artist’s move to Essex for more studio and intellectual space from the city. At this time, his friend Henry Moore offered Ayrton technical guidance. Kore (1965) in The Minories Collection exemplifies how, like his mentor, Ayrton always preserved an element of the figurative in his sculpture.
Kore is a name given to an Archaic Greek sculpture, and often refers to Persephone the Greek goddess of fertility and the Queen of the Underworld. This muscular bronze cranium is rooted like a rock on the earth and strains upwards in contortion that is on the brink of either ecstasy or anguish. Dual forces seem to be pulling the skull in two directions, if read as a symbol of Persephone this yearning is the result of entrapment. Ayrton explored the themes and form of Kore in aquatints, and bronze editions of Kore have been exhibited at Austin Desmond Fine Art, London in 1991 London and Hamet Fallery Cork Street in 1996.
Cannon-Brookes, Peter., Michael Ayrton, The Minories, Colchester, 1977
Graham, Rigby., Goldmark Gallery, Rutland 1987
Hopkins, Justine., Michael Ayrton, Beaux Arts, London, 1995
Lambert, Constant., Michael Ayrton Paintings Drawings Theatre Design, Wakefield City Art Gallery 1949
Le Marchant, M., Reoccurring Themes and Images, Bruton Gallery, Somerset 1981
Nyenhuis, Jacob E., Daedalus 1: Michael Ayrton ‘The Maze and Beyond’, Art Gallery, Birmingham Michigan, USA, 1972
Michael Ayrton An exhibition of work completed during 1945-1955, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1955
Michael Ayrton Maze Maker, The Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, 1984
Michael Ayrton ‘The Maze’ Bronzes Drawings Etchings 1962 – 1972, R.S Johnson – International Gallery, Chicago, USA, 1972
Michael Ayrton Maze and Minotaur, Exeter City Art Gallery, 1973
- 1943-59 Redfern Gallery (first solo show- biannually thereafter)
- 1946 touring Arts Council exhibition- Four Young British Painters (Keith Vaughn, William Scott, John Minton)
- 1949 Wakefield (retrospective)
- 1955 Whitechapel (retrospective)
- 1977 The Compulsive Image
- 1979 Twenty-Four Essex and Suffolk Artists 1900-1978 (group)