Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) Two Men in a Bar

Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) Two Men in a Bar


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.


The Minories Collection houses a print and a bronze sculpture by Michael Ayrton. Two Men in a Bar is a delicately-taut etching depicting two French fin de siècle poets; the symbolist Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud who had a tumultuous and violent love affair. The print is most certainly part of Ayrton’s series The Verlaine Suite (circa 1972) which comprises 15 plates and illustrates Veraline’s secret collection of erotic poetry Femmes/Hommes (1890). On the surface, the drinks on the table and dandyesque attire evoke the decadence of bohemia, while the sharp, linear tone of the scrupulous etching reveals an underlying tension between the two men; that of volatility.

Ayrton’s etching encapsulates the same fluidity and cool detachment of his drawings such as Bearded Head (1939) in the Tate collection. Ayrton stated; ‘Drawing is the centre. To me, drawing is not only the central activity from which both painting and sculpture stem but the core of visual experience’.Another of Ayrton’s illustrative works was Wyndham Lewis’ The Human Age (1955). Ayrton undertook this when Lewis, the pioneering artist of the English art avant-garde movement Vorticism and prolific political writer, lost his eyesight and was unable to draw. In the same year Ayrton painted a portrait of Lewis which is now in the Tate. Other subjects of Ayrton’s portraits include Dylan Thomas and William Golding; they not only reflect his contemporary artistic circle but also his interest in portraying innovative literary figures.


  • 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

Selected exhibitions

  • 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)

Melissa Blanchflower