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Michael Ayrton

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Michael Ayrton
Sculpture of Talos on Guildhall Street in Cambridge
Michael Ayrton Gould[1]

(1921-02-20)20 February 1921
London, England
Died16 November 1975(1975-11-16) (aged 54)
London, England
Resting placeSt Botolph's Church, Hadstock, Essex
Occupation(s)artist, writer, painter, printmaker, sculptor, critic, broadcaster and novelist

Michael Ayrton (20 February 1921 – 16 November 1975)[3] was a British painter, printmaker, sculptor, critic, broadcaster and novelist. His sculptures, illustrations, poems and stories often focused on the subjects of flight, myths, mirrors and mazes.

He was also a stage and costume designer, working with John Minton on the 1942 John Gielgud production of Macbeth at the age of nineteen, and a book designer and illustrator for Wyndham Lewis's The Human Age trilogy. An exhibition, 'Word and Image' (National Book League 1971), explored Lewis's and Ayrton's literary and artistic connections.[4] He also collaborated with Constant Lambert and William Golding.

Life and career

Minotaur at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Ayrton was born Michael Ayrton Gould,[1] son of the writer Gerald Gould and the Labour politician Barbara Ayrton, and took his mother's maiden name professionally. His maternal grandmother was the electrical engineer and inventor, Hertha Marks Ayrton. In his teens during the 1930s he studied art at Heatherley School of Fine Art and St John's Wood Art School, then in Paris under Eugène Berman, where he shared a studio with John Minton. He travelled to Spain and attempted to enlist on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, but was rejected for being under-age.[5]

In the 1940s, Ayrton participated in the BBC's radio programme The Brains Trust.[6] He married the novelist and cookery writer Elisabeth Balchin in 1942 following her divorce from Nigel Balchin a year earlier.[7]

Beginning in 1961, Michael Ayrton wrote and created many works associated with the myths of the Minotaur and Daedalus, the legendary inventor and maze builder, including bronze sculptures and the pseudo-autobiographical novel The Maze Maker (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967). In 1969, he designed the Arkville Maze.[8] He also wrote and illustrated a satirical novel, Tittivulus or The Verbiage Collector (Max Reinhardt, 1953; designed by Will Carter), an account of the career of a minor devil whose original remit was to collect slovenly performances of the Divine Office in monasteries, but who develops, as the centuries pass, into a collector of all kinds of verbiage, and finally, in the modern age, mounts a fascistic revolution in Hell. Ayrton was also the author of several non-fiction works on fine art, including Aspects of British Art (Collins, 1947).[9]

He died in 1975, survived by his wife. In 1977, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery organised a retrospective exhibition of his work.[10]

His work is included in several collections including the Tate Gallery, London, National Portrait Gallery, London, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Fry Art Gallery, Essex. Ayrton's work was also featured at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, in an exhibition running from September to October 1955.

In 2021, the artist's centenary year, there were exhibitions of his work (Celebrating Michael Ayrton at The Lightbox Gallery, Woking, UK; A Singular Obsession: A Centenary Celebration of the work of Michael Ayrton, Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, UK; Michael Ayrton's Minotaur Suite, Kruizenga Art Museum, Michigan, USA), and an illustrated monograph, Michael Ayrton: Ideas Images Reflections.[11]

Selected writings

  • 1945: Poems of Death. Verses chosen by Phoebe Pool, Lithographs by Michael Ayrton. London: Frederick Muller Ltd.
  • 1946: British Drawing. London: Collins ASIN B00149X1DM
  • 1947: Aspects of British Art. London: Collins
  • 1953: Tittivulus or The Verbiage Collector. London: Max Reinhardt
  • 1957: Golden Sections. London: Methuen
  • 1962: The Testament of Daedalus. London: Methuen. with a foreword by Rex Warner; reprinted, London: Robin Clark, 1991. ISBN 978-0-86072-140-6
  • 1967: The Maze Maker: a novel. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston
  • 1969: Berlioz: A singular obsession. London: BBC Publications
  • 1969: Giovanni Pisano: Sculptor. London: Thames & Hudson
  • 1971: The Rudiments of Paradise: Various essays on various arts. London: Secker & Warburg
  • 1972: Fabrications. London: Secker & Warburg. / New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1973

See also



  1. ^ a b "Oxford Index". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/30777. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ Justine Hopkins, 'Ayrton , Elisabeth Evelyn (1910–1991)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2011 accessed 16 Jan 2017
  3. ^ T. G. Rosenthal, "Ayrton , Michael (1921–1975)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008, accessed 24 Jan 2015
  4. ^ The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 6th Edition. Edited by Margaret Drabble, Oxford University Press, 2000 Pp55
  5. ^ Martin Baker, The Art of Radio Times, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford/Chris Beetles Limited, 2002, p. 28
  6. ^ "The Brains Trust". Retrieved 27 July 2014.
  7. ^ Collett, Derek (2015). His Own Executioner: The Life of Nigel Balchin. SilverWood. ISBN 978-1-78132-391-5.
  8. ^ Nyenhuis, Jacob E. (2003). Myth and the creative process: Michael Ayrton and the myth of Daedalus, the maze maker. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State University Press. p. 17. ISBN 9780814330029.
  9. ^ "Michael Ayrton - National Portrait Gallery". npg.org.uk.
  10. ^ T. G. Rosenthal, 'Ayrton, Michael (1921–1975)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  11. ^ "www.michaelayrton.com".

Further reading

  • James Laver, Paintings by Michael Ayrton (1948. Grey Walls Press, London)
  • C. P. Snow, Michael Ayrton Drawings and Sculpture (1962)
  • Cannon-Brookes, Peter, Michael Ayrton: an illustrated commentary (1978. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)
  • Peter Tucker, 'The book illustrations of Michael Ayrton', in The Private Library; 3rd series, 9:1 (1986 Spring), p. 2–52
  • Hopkins, Justine Michael Ayrton: a biography (1994. Deutsch, London)
  • Nyenhuis, Jacob E., Myth and the Creative Process: Michael Ayrton and the myth of Daedalus, the Maze Maker (2003. Wayne State University Press, Detroit)