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Michael Ayrton: The Beast Within

In 1971 Michael Ayrton found that drawing and sculpture were no longer enough to exorcise his obsessions. He turned to a discipline he had not practised since his student days at Heatherley’s School of Art: the exacting process of etching. During that single year, fuelled by a relentless fervour, he etched dozens of plates, finally producing two very different, but breathtaking suites of etchings.

'Pent' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

'Pent' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

The first was The Minotaur Suite: ten etchings charting the early life of the Minotaur. Greek mythology had possessed Ayrton throughout his life. He wrote books, built mazes, created paintings, sculpture and hundreds of drawings. By 1970 perhaps he had hoped this compulsion was at last laid to rest with the publication of The Maze Maker (1967), a fictional autobiography in which Ayrton identifies himself as Daedalus; and the hermetic bronze Personal Janus (1970), a double-faced bust casting himself and the Minotaur, back to back, fused together at the skull. The Minotaur was part of him, the fascination visceral. ‘He couldn’t get away from him,’ recalled Elisabeth, Ayrton’s wife.

'As Calf' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

'As Calf' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

Ayrton never felt repulsion towards the Minotaur, only empathy. In the third plate of the suite, Minotaur As Calf, Ayrton sets Asterion (the Minotaur’s name) with the sweet, inquisitive nature of a child. There is a sadness too: half human, Asterion has the capacity for higher understanding, but he is in constant conflict with his baser animal instincts; occasionally he is able to glimpse the human world through human eyes, but with that comes anguish at the recognition of his own monstrosity. Also present in the image is the careful tension between Asterion and his royal nursemaid, keeping a gentle but knowing hold of his golden leash – which he tugs at, testing, wondering why he can’t be entirely free; the portent of his future imprisonment, the labyrinth, taking sinister form in the background.

'Embryo' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

'Embryo' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

'Consecrated' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

'Consecrated' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

The series chronicles Asterion from embryo to adulthood. By seven months he is already the size of a ten year-old and ‘in his fourth year his body was that of a fine young man,’ observes Elisabeth, speaking as Asterion’s nurse in her excellent book Minotaur! ‘His hands and feet were larger than normal and his head was that of a full grown bull with a fine sweep of horns. It was too heavy and too wide for a man’s shoulders and I could see that they ached at the end of the day. He would come then and lie down in front of me and stroke them with his hands and moan and weep until I fetched unguents to rub into them. But this became dangerous for he would suddenly try to pull me down on top of him.’

'Revealed' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

'Revealed' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

The final plate of the suite, Minotaur Fully Grown, depicts Asterion standing astride a naked Ariadne, with obvious intent, pinning her to the floor with one muscular arm, while with the other he gently cradles her head. The sad expression in his face portrays the powerless bewilderment he feels.

'Risen' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

'Risen' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

'Full Grown' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

'Full Grown' – from Michael Ayrton's 'Minotaur' suite

Directly after The Minotaur Suite was completed, ever-restless Ayrton transferred his energies into a second, even more ambitious series: The Verlaine Suite of 15 etchings. Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) was a French Decadent poet. In 1948 a friend of Ayrton’s, David Jeffries, the British Consul in Positano, gave him a copy of Verlaine’s erotic poems Femmes/Hombres. He had inscribed it: ‘In memory of those Capri charms’. It occurred to Ayrton that there had never been an illustrated edition of the poems and, whatever had happened in Capri (Ayrton was well known for his infidelities), he decided to immerse himself in the project and find a publisher.

'Dans ce café' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

'Dans ce café' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

He took some preparatory drawings to his old friend Douglas Cleverdon, who styled himself in the tradition of the great French patron and publisher Ambroise Vollard. Cleverdon was delighted and immediately agreed to an edition. This suited Ayrton doubly well as it was Vollard who, in 1930, commissioned the famous suite of etchings that bear his name by Picasso. Ayrton’s career had been dogged by his early criticism of Picasso and he found himself often having to defend his own, original ideas as arrived at entirely independent of Picasso. However, the thematic choice and the airy style of the single-line etching in Ayrton’s Verlaine Suite have a marked, even jealous, similarity to that of Picasso’s Vollard.

'Pour Rita' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

'Pour Rita' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

As with the Minotaur, the printing of The Verlaine Suite was undertaken by Studio Prints in London. Most of the completed etchings were met with apprehension due to their subject matter, and gallery owners preferred to exhibit Dans ce Café or Pour Rita in their windows while concealing the rest of the prints in a back room for ‘the more discerning collector’.

'Regals' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

'Regals' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

Ayrton found this practice highly amusing, as Justine Hopkins noted in her biography: ‘His own interest in producing the images had little to do with any personal taste for erotica for its own sake. What fascinated him was the work itself; in Verlaine he found another obsessive personality, as driven by demons as St Anthony or Berlioz, and the fiercely graphic nature of the designs echoes and complements the descriptive detail of the verses, while the minimal backgrounds give a hallucinatory effect, so that one almost feels that these naked figures are phantoms projected by the overwhelming elemental force of Verlaine’s erotic imagination.’

'Il est mauvais coucher' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

'Il est mauvais coucher' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

'Balanide' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

'Balanide' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

Despite being elected France’s Prince des Poètes in 1894, Verlaine’s final years were spent in debauched poverty. He descended into drug addiction and alcoholism, pitching from slum to slum and passing his days half- upright in seedy Paris cafés drinking absinthe.

'Partie Carrée' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

'Partie Carrée' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

Compare Partie Carreé (above) from The Verlaine Suite with Minotaur As Calf and one can identify clear similarities in the treatment of each protagonist. Both appear submissive and on their knees, in thrall to their brutish instincts. In the Verlaine image, the fille de joie strokes the top of his baldpate tenderly and with a sense of pity as he suckles at her like a child, helpless to his own abandon. Unlike the Minotaur, however, the etchings in The Verlaine Suite are without shadow, there are no straight lines, the wavy forms conjure a world of stupefaction. There is more a sense of end than beginning.

'Ouverture' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

'Ouverture' – from the 'Femmes/Hombres' Verlaine suite

Ayrton recognised the beast inside Verlaine as well as he recognised the beast inside the Minotaur. They were comrades. With the Minotaur, Ayrton shared that grim search for meaningful existence, and with Verlaine, he knew only too well the mania of obsession. But, like Verlaine, Ayrton’s frenetic genius was cut short, and four years later he was dead, defeated by a heart attack aged just fifty-four. The beast had prevailed.

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Michael Ayrton

The Other Wing

Lithograph
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Michael Ayrton

Alone

Etching
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Michael Ayrton

Full Grown

Etching
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Michael Ayrton

Revealed

Etching
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Michael Ayrton

Pent

Etching
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Michael Ayrton

Rising

Etching
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Michael Ayrton

As Yearling

Etching
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Michael Ayrton

As Calf

Etching
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Michael Ayrton

Consecrated

Etching
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Michael Ayrton

Embryo

Etching
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