Presented by Francis Carnwath to mark his term of office at the Tate Gallery and in memory of his father 1996
Michael Ayrton and the painter and author Percy Wyndham Lewis (1182-1957) had a mutual regard for one another as artists. In his book British Drawings, 1946, Ayrton described Wyndham Lewis as the finest draughtsman of his generation; for Lewis, Ayrton was destined to be 'one of the decisive influences in English art' (Michael Ayrton, exhibition catalogue, Wakefield City Art Gallery, Wakefield 1949, p.2). However, it was only in the last four years of Lewis's life that they became friends. During that period Ayrton illustrated several of Lewis's books and was commissioned by his publishers, Methuen & Co Ltd, to paint this portrait, which was worked from life. He also made numerous related drawings.
For the painting Ayrton referred to Lewis's portraiture of the 1920s and 1930s, in particular Ezra Pound, 1939 (Tate N05042). In 'Tarr and Flying Feathers', an essay that Ayrton wrote about Lewis in 1955, he explained how he had copied the dimensions of Ezra Pound and had reversed its composition as an act of homage to Lewis. Likewise the handkerchief sticking out of Lewis's breast pocket forms the angular 'V' motif so much associated with Vorticist imagery. In June 1914 Lewis and Pound had founded the Vorticist journal Blast. Ayrton's admiration for Lewis partially stemmed from his position as the founder of Vorticism, which he described as 'the one coherent movement in twentieth century British Art' (Ayrton, p.147).
The image itself relates closely to Ayrton's first impression of Lewis when he visited him at his Notting Hill flat in 1945: 'Mr Lewis, clothed in black, sat hunched in a blue-black chair squared off, partner to his ashtray and on the summit of Mr Lewis's black and formal figure was Mr Lewis's head, wedge-shaped, blade-nosed, with a forehead like a sledgehammer beneath which the girders of his spectacle-frames seemed to provide a dangerous cakewalk for ideas to cross.' (Ayrton, p.148). The one significant addition is the green plastic visor that Lewis wears in the portrait. By 1953 a brain tumour had rendered Lewis blind, and he wore the peak to protect his eyes. To Ayrton it 'added a curious dimension to his face. The forehead which hitherto had been, it seemed to me, designed for striking ringing blows, was now bisected but armed with a green obsidian cutting edge from beneath which the nose reared like a secret weapon' (Ayrton, p.151).
Ayrton rarely painted portraits, and those that he did were generally of literary and musical figures who he knew and liked, for example, Dylan Thomas, William Golding and William Walton. While Lewis and Ayrton disagreed on many matters they were, by Lewis's death, firm friends, with Ayrton nominated as an executor in his will.
Peter Cannon-Brookes, Michael Ayrton: An Illustrated Commentary, Birmingham 1978, reproduced p.45, pl.74
Michael Ayrton, 'Tarr and Flying Feathers', Golden Sections, London 1957, pp.146-55
23 January 2001