Born in London in 1921, Michael Ayrton drew this pencil self-portrait in late 1961. He wrote to Ruth Borchard:
‘I haven’t been able to do a self-portrait especially for you, but I have found a tolerable pencil drawing which looks like me… Would that do? When I say pencil drawing, I don’t mean a little sketch. It’s quite highly worked and measures 12” x 18”. It would cost £40 in the normal way. If you let me know, I’ll send it.’
Ruth replied that her upper limit for self-portraits was, inflexibly, 21 guineas. Ayrton responded with gracious wit:
‘I will accept the 21 gns and I much admire anyone who can obtain so many works for no more than that figure per work.’
Like so much of Ayrton’s work, this brilliantly rendered self-portrait has a slightly self-dramatising air, yet it sensitively conjures up a curious mix of hauteur and vulnerability, an emotional ambiguity that Ayrton once summed up by saying, ‘I am very ambitious and self-confident – but suffer grave doubts most of the time.’ This state of mind is partly evoked through details: the artist’s slightly upraised left eyebrow, his penetratingly critical gaze and sourly down-turned mouth.
Ayrton was a highly cerebral, often acerbically opinionated, character, who, in an infamous early essay (which he later repudiated) demolished Picasso as an artist. Like his fellow young British artists, John Minton, John Craxton and Keith Vaughan, Ayrton came under the Neo-Romantic spell of Graham Sutherland during the War; visiting Sutherland’s remote Cornish cottage, he had made mysterious portraits of the Master, full of ominous shadowings and prickly lines. After the War, Ayrton travelled in continental Europe, enjoying the hot sun, artistic traditions ranging from the archaic to Modernism and the delicious, un-rationed, wine and food. Yet in paintings such as his 1950 entry for the Festival of Britain competition, The Captive Seven (portraying the Seven Deadly Sins in contemporary Italian proletarian guise), he was alive to a pervasive post-war mood of accidie and angst.
‘The great problem of drawing’, he wrote, ‘is how to make a permanent distillation, in a single image, of something which in fact has changed all the time under your eyes.’ His later work included paintings, drawings and sculptures of mythical figures – often seen questing for their own identity within series of mazes and mirrors. Ayrton died in 1975, aged 54.