As part of the Festival of Britain celebrations of 1951, the Arts Council invited sixty contemporary artists to submit one large-scale painting each for the 60 Paintings for '51 exhibition. Ayrton's entry was The Captive Seven, which he painted in his studio at All Soul's Place, London. It is one of the largest paintings from his so-called Italian period, a phase that began in 1946 and ended in 1951. Ayrton's frequent visits to Italy during those years stimulated a move away from the North European linearity of his earlier work towards the plasticity and clearly structured monumentality associated with Italian Renaissance painting. He did not, however, entirely forsake the Northern tradition as the grotesque distortions and lurid palette of The Captive Seven, which are indebted to such artists as Matthias Grunewald (c.1475-1528) and Otto Dix (1891-1969), demonstrate. The abject nature of the painting has been contextualised by David Mellor within the general existential malaise that followed the Second World War (1939-45).
According to the artist, the painting is an allegory about the corrosive effects of the seven deadly sins, namely Pride, Envy, Avarice, Gluttony, Lust, Sloth and Anger. It is the interplay and interdependence of these sins that interested him. Thus the figures in the painting do not separately personify each sin, instead various sins intermingle within each of the protagonists and thereby imprison them. Ayrton summarised the composition thus:
The central group is steeped in Pride, the deadliest of all sins, in two separate aspects. The woman's pride is sexual and embraces lust, and in her attitude to the lovemaking pair who form the group on her right is an element of envy. Her mantle is both a matador's cape and the ecclesiastical purple. She flicks money casually into the dirt. The old man in front of her is governed by intellectual pride and it projection, spiritual pride. His envy comes from the death of the physical appetites, from the lust and gluttony he can no longer practice, and anger, provoked by these frustrations, has written on his face. Pride is his refuge and his is the ultimate pass to which others may come.
The group comprising the fat woman and the two children is dominated by the juvenile sin of gluttony. The woman has lost her hope of lust satisfied and has fallen into gluttony as a substitute. Envy remains and sloth is the inevitable product of her ungainly body. Anger is directed against the child in red, who in turn envies his brother the doughnuts he greedily eats. The child in red is angered by the simple injustice he finds in the large child's refusal to share the cakes and not less by the pride the naked boy shows in his physical superiority and his ability to possess both doughnuts by force. The naked boy is also possessed by the most childish of sins and eats voraciously. On the right lies a girl, hot and heavy in the sunlight. She is held by lust but her very appetites are dulled by sloth and she holds in one hand the net of ennui which trickles from her across the whole foreground. The young man who seeks to kindle her is motivated towards lust by vanity rather than desire, physical rather than sexual pride. His mind is partly involved also with his interest in the coins which he sees tossed onto the ground in front of him. His avarice is stronger than his lusts because lust to him is pride and pride is better fed with money which can buy the objects of lusts; in him also is envy of one who can treat money so casually. (Ayrton, pp.2-3).
The building behind this group was itself considered by Ayrton to be a victim of pride. Located in the Vicola della Moretta, Rome, it was half demolished on the orders of the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945). In its place a building in Mussolini's honour was to be built, but in the end the project was never completed. The clothesline, sagging under the weight of the 'rags of hope' (Ayrton, p.4), represents apathy. The town to which the line leads, but significantly stops short of, 'exists solely because no one will ever get to it.' (Ayrton, p.4).
In 1955 Ayrton repainted parts of the canvas; most noticeably he closed the mouth of the prone female figure on the right and changed the position of her left hand, thereby increasing her disinterested and languid appearance.
David Mellor (ed.), A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987, pp.70-1, reproduced p.71, pl.76 (colour)
Michael Ayrton, 'Notes on The Captive Seven', Tate Archive
Justine Hopkins, Michael Ayrton: A Biography, London 1994, pp.164-8