20 February 2020

A sculptor who asks us
where are the post-Brexit
guardians of civilisation

‘The Minotaur’ by Michael Ayrton … now at Saint Alphage Gardens, near Salters’ Hall, the Barbican and London Wall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

One the captivating sculptures I noticed in London recently is ‘The Minotaur,’ a sculpture by Michael Ayrton that has been moved around London since it was acquired by the City of London in 1973.

Although this was one of Ayrton’s favourite works, it has been moved around over the past half century. It now stands Saint Alphage Gardens, next to Saint Alphage House on London Wall, behind the Salters’ Hall.

But ‘The Minotaur’ was originally sited in Postman’s Park beside Saint Botolph without Aldersgate Church when it was unveiled in 1973. It then moved to Saint Alphage High Walk at the Barbican Estate, but there it still looked isolated.

The present location of ‘The Minotaur’, hopefully, allows more people to appreciate the work of Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) as a sculptor and a significant figure in British Arts in the mid-20th century.

The artist and writer Michael Ayrton was renowned as a painter, printmaker, sculptor and designer, and also as a critic, broadcaster and novelist. His output of sculptures, illustrations, poems and stories illustrate his obsession with flight, myths, mirrors and mazes.

Michael Ayrton was born Michael Ayrton Gould, on 20 February 1921, a son of the English writer, journalist and essayist Gerald Gould (1885-1936) and the Labour politician Barbara Ayrton-Gould (1886-1950).

Gerald Gould studied at University College London and Magdalen College Oxford, and was once a Fellow of Merton College Oxford (1909-1916). He and his wife Barbara were activist in suffragist campaigns. He also worked as a journalist on the Daily Herald as one of ‘Lansbury’s Lambs’ after it was bought by George Lansbury in 1913.

Gould probably brought Siegfried Sassoon to the paper as literary editor in 1919. He also wrote for the New Statesman and The Observer, and worked for Victor Gollancz, where he was involved in the early publication of George Orwell.

Barbara Ayrton-Gould was a daughter of Hertha Marks Ayrton and William Edward Ayrton, both prominent electrical engineers and inventors. In March 1912, Barbara was involved in smashing shop windows in the West End of London for suffrage. She spent time in prison, and when she was release, in 1913, she went to France, disguised as a schoolgirl, to avoid being arrested again.

She was the Chair of the Labour Party (1939-1940), and was MP for Hendon North (1945-1950).

Her mother, the electrical engineer and inventor Hertha Marks Ayrton (1854-1923), was the daughter of Levi Marks, a Jewish watchmaker who had fled the pogroms in the Tsarist empire.

Michael Ayrton-Gould used his mother’s maiden name professionally, and so was known throughout his career as Michael Ayrton.

He studied art at Heatherley School of Fine Art and St John’s Wood Art School in the1930s, and then in Paris with Eugène Berman, sharing a studio with John Minton. He travelled to Spain and tried to enlist on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, but was rejected for being under-age.

He was also a stage and costume designer, working with John Minton on John Gielgud’s production of Macbeth in 1942 at the age of 19, and a book designer and illustrator for Wyndham Lewis’s The Human Age trilogy.

Ayrton took part in the popular BBC radio programme, The Brains Trust. in the 1940s. He also collaborated with Constant Lambert and William Golding.

From 1961, Michael Ayrton wrote and created many works associated with the myths of the Minotaur and Daedalus, the legendary inventor and maze builder. These works included bronze sculptures, his pseudo-autobiographical novel The Maze Maker (1967), and Aspects of British Art (1947).

He died on 16 November 1975.

His work is in several important collections, including the Tate Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Michael Ayton’s Talos illustrates the anger and bewilderment of many post-war British sculptors (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

I was late in coming to an appreciation of Michael Ayrton’s work, through his sculpture of ‘Talos’ in Guildhall Street, Cambridge, opposite the Guildhall and close to the Cambridge University Catholic Chaplaincy.

For many years, I had paid little attention to this ‘Talos’ in Cambridge, but it struck me forcibly recently, perhaps because I was just back from Crete, and I noticed both the statue and the inscription, which says:

Talos, Legendary man of bronze,
was guardian of Minoan Crete
the first civilisation
of Europe
Sculptor: Michael Ayrton

According to the stories in Greek mythology, Zeus abducted Europa and took her to Crete, where Talos, a bronze giant, guarded her from pirates by circling shores of Crete three times a day.

Talos was made by Zeus, Daedalus or Hephaistos. A single vein of molten metal gave life to Talos, and this ‘blood’ was kept inside the giant’s body by a bronze peg in his ankle. Talos attacked Jason and the Argonauts when they landed on Crete, Talos attacked them. Medea charmed Talos into removing the bronze peg, all his ichor flowed into the sand, and he died.

Talos was sculpted by Ayrton in 1950. Like the mythical Talos, Ayrton’s Talos is also made of bronze. But he has no arms, no face, and his torso is a bulging box shape. By leaving Talos without his arms, Ayton illustrates the anger and bewilderment of many post-war British sculptors.

The bull depicted on frescoes in Knossos in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Greek mythology, the Minotaur (Μινώταυρος) is a portrayed with the head and tail of a bull and the body of a man. He lived at the centre of the Labyrinth, the elaborate maze-like construction at Knossos designed by Daedalus and his son Icarus at the command of King Minos of Crete. The Minotaur was eventually killed by Theseus of Athens.

Michael Ayrton’s step-granddaughter and biographer, Justine Hopkins, spent much of her childhood at Bradfields when her mother was Michael Ayrton’s sculpture assistant. She now works lectures in Art History for the Victoria and Albert Museum, at Bristol, London, Oxford and Cambridge universities, and at the Tate, Sotheby’s and Christie’s.’

She has brought to life Ayrton’s evolution as an artist as an artist and offers an insight into some of his major sculptures, including ‘The Minotaur’ and ‘Talos’.

Michael Ayrton’s ‘Talos’ in Cambridge and ‘The Minotaur’ in London show how British art and sculpture cannot be separated from the mainstream of European civilisation, culture and mythology. But as I stood before ‘The Minotaur’ in London I recalled how as I paid new attention to ‘Talos’ in Cambridge just a year after the Brexit referendum. Once again, I asked myself who is going to portray the anger and bewilderment of post-Brexit Britain as its consequences unfold before our eyes.

Where is the guardian in Britain of the civilisation of Europe?

Descending into the labyrinth in Knossos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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