Michael Ayrton was a veritable twentieth-century Renaissance man, whose relatively short career encompassed a wide range of creative achievements. He was a painter, illustrator, sculptor and stage designer, and also a novelist, critic and broadcaster. His varied output reveals a fascination with mythological subjects, and especially those concerning flight, mazes and mirrors. Michael Ayrton was born in London on 20 February 1921, to the writer Gerald Gould and the Labour politician Barbara Ayrton; extremely ambitious, he adopted his mother’s name at the time of his father’s death in order to appear high in the alphabetical lists of mixed exhibitions. Though his formal schooling – at Abinger Preparatory School – was broken by long periods of illness, he spent much time in private study and in travel, including a year in Vienna. He studied art at Heatherley School of Art (1935), St John’s Wood School of Art, and in Paris where he shared a studio with John Minton (1938); both studied under Eugène Berman, with Ayrton occasionally working in the studio of de Chirico.
During the Second World War, Ayrton and Minton were given leave from the Royal Air Force in order to design and supervise the sets and costumes for John Gielgud’s production of Macbeth (1940-42).
The designs were shown at the Leicester Galleries (1942), but the RAF considered Ayrton a malingerer, and so he was ‘invalided out’. He soon found a position as a teacher of drawing and stage design at the Camberwell School of Art (1942-44). During the 1940s, he assimilated the influences of John Piper and Graham Sutherland in a number of Neo-Romantic landscapes. He made contact with Sutherland in Pembrokeshire (1945-46) and succeeded Piper as art critic on The Spectator (1944-46). He also became known for his radio broadcasts on art and as a regular participant in the BBC’s Round Britain Quiz.
Endlessly stretching his talents as an artist and writer, Ayrton continued to develop as a stage designer and began to work as an illustrator, first in pen and ink, later employing lithography. He contributed illustrations to Radio Times during the late 1940s. His first visit to Italy, in 1947, resulted in paintings influenced by painters of the Quattrocento, while further travels in Italy (1956-57) and Greece (1958) inspired a passionate interest in the related myths of Icarus, Daedalus and the Minotaur. From 1951, he was based at Toppesfield, Essex, where he began to work as a sculptor. Taking technical advice from Henry Moore, he soon became as proficient in three as in two dimensions, and found himself able to work through his ideas with great success in almost any medium. He died on 17 November 1975.
His work is represented in The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art and numerous public collections, including the Arts Council Collection (Southbank Centre), the British Council, the Government Art Collection, the National Portrait Gallery and Tate; and the Fry Art Gallery (Saffron Walden), Keele University Art Collection and the University of Essex.
Further reading: Peter Cannon-Brookes, Michael Ayrton: an illustrated commentary, Birmingham City Museums and Art Gallery, 1978; Justine Hopkins, Michael Ayrton: a biography, London: André Deutsch, 1994; T G Rosenthal, ‘Ayrton [formerly Ayrton Gould], Michael (1921–1975)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 3, pages 43-46