Michael Ayrton

Portrait of Wyndham Lewis


Not on display

Michael Ayrton 1921–1975
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 805 × 1000 mm
frame: 988 × 1176 × 127 mm
Presented by Francis Carnwath to mark his term of office at the Tate Gallery and in memory of his father 1996


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.

Further reading:
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

Toby Treves
23 January 2001

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Display caption

Michael Ayrton became friends with the painter and author Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957) in the last few years of Lewis’s life. Ayrton illustrated several of Lewis’s books, and was commissioned by his publishers, Methuen and Co., to make this portrait, which he painted from life. Ayrton particularly admired Lewis as the founder of the avant garde art movement, Vorticism: the handkerchief in Lewis’s breast pocket is arranged into the angular ‘V’ often used in Vorticist imagery. In 1953 Lewis had been made blind by a brain tumour, and wore the green plastic visor to protect his eyes.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Technique and condition

The painting was executed in oil colours on a medium-weight linen canvas, attached to an expandable wooden stretcher. The most unusual feature of the painting's structure is that it contains no pigmented priming (or preparatory ) layer. The only preparation to the canvas before the application of the oil paint appears to have been a thin layer of unpigmented size, possibly rabbit skin glue.

The linen canvas shows through to the front in several areas of the painting, for example in the sitter's hands, eyes, his right ear and around the handkerchief in his breast pocket. It is likely that the canvas has discoloured slightly since the painting's execution, which would have darkened the overall appearance of the work.

The paint has been applied exclusively by brush and appears lean. When applied it would have been of fairly stiff consistency, thus capable of producing the very sharp nature of the low impasto visible in many areas (e.g. in the sitter's face). Where flat and thin areas of colour are present the paint would have been diluted down either with turpentine or a small amount of additional oil medium. The painting does not possess any varnish layer, which has the effect of adding to its overall dry appearance.

The painting is in overall excellent condition, with no indication of cracking or other paint damage. An area of efflorescence which had appeared in the background brown colour was removed. By chemical analysis, the brown paint was found to contain beeswax as well as the oil, which was presumably added to produce an even more paste-like paint.

The painting is signed and dated in the lower left corner, along the edge of the side-table. The frame is probably original and has been modified to improve the protection offered to the painting, primarily through the addition of glazing and a backboard.

Tom Learner
July 1997

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