Michael Ayrton

The Temptation of St Anthony


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Not on display

Michael Ayrton 1921–1975
Oil paint on wood
Support: 581 × 752 mm
frame: 754 × 917 × 75 mm
Purchased 1983

Display caption

In his youth Ayrton was fascinated by the story of the hermit Saint Anthony who had resisted temptation from demonic visions. Ayrton began this version of the theme in 1942, during the Second World War, because he felt it related to his own life and to the state of the world. Ayrton makes his scene dark and monstrous, emphasizing the macabre, supernatural nature of the visions. As an artist and critic Ayrton had promoted a revival of the Northern European tradition of romantic art, with its emphasis on imagination and emotion. This Neo-Romantic art signified the freedom of the individual and a continuity with English culture of the past, both of which were important during the dark days of the War.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on panel 22 7/8 × 29 5/8 (581 × 752)
Inscribed ‘michael ayrton f./1942–1943’ t.r.
Purchased from Christopher Hull Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1983
Prov: Richard Gorer, 1943; Michael Ayrton, mid-1960s; Elizabeth Ayrton, 1975; Christopher Hull Gallery, 1982
Exh: Basil Jonzen, Michael Ayrton, Hugo Dachinger, also French paintings, Redfern Gallery, July 1943 (71); Michael Ayrton, Humphrey Spender: paintings, Redfern Gallery, March–April 1947 (19); Michael Ayrton, Wakefield City Art Gallery, August–September 1949 (travelling to Harrogate, Halifax and Hull) (20, repr.); The compulsive image: sculpture and paintings by Michael Ayrton, Birmingham City Art Gallery, January–February 1977 (6); Michael Ayrton, 1921–1975: sculpture, paintings and graphics, Christopher Hull Gallery, September–October 1982 (ex-catalogue)
Lit: Robert Melville, ‘Michael Ayrton: The Temptation of St. Anthony’, exhibition catalogue Basil Jonzen, Michael Ayrton, [etc.], Redfern Gallery, 1943, p.4; ‘Perspex’ [= ? Herbert Furst], ‘Art Notes’ (review of exhibition Basil Jonzen, Michael Ayrton, [etc.], Redfern Gallery, July 1943), Apollo, xxxviii, 1943, pp.45, 55; James Laver, Paintings by Michael Ayrton, 1949, pp.6, 11, repr. pl.7 (dated 1946); Peter Cannon-Brookes, Michael Ayrton: An Illustrated Commentary, Birmingham, 1978, pp.11, 15, repr. pl.18

In his Apollo review of Ayrton's 1943 exhibition, ‘Perspex’ quotes extensively from a letter from the artist, explaining his engagement with the legend of St Anthony; Ayrton writes:

The subject was originally conceived in Vienna shortly after the Dolfuss putsch, partly out of admiration for the Flemish and German xv th and xvi th century painters, in particular Bosch, Grünewald, Schongauer... and partly from a feeling that St Anthony himself was possessed of Promethean qualities, which in his trials symbolized the state of man as much to-day as in A.D. 360. I felt very intensely about the philosophical problem involved and very much drawn to work at my own version of the subject in relation to my own life and the world as I felt it to be.

Ayrton stayed with relatives in Vienna in 1934–5. Again, in autobiographical notes for the catalogue of the exhibition Word and Image I & II: Wyndham Lewis, Michael Ayrton (National Book League, 1971), Ayrton writes:

...in the early 'forties he had conceived a series of paintings and drawings on the theme of ‘The Temptation of St Anthony’ which drew its inspiration from Grünewald and other German and Flemish 16th Century masters and in a considerable degree from Flaubert's novel, but it did not occur to him at the time to relate his own words to his images ...

(Gustave Flaubert's La Tentation de Saint Antoine was published in 1874.)

St Anthony the Great (? 251–356) retired into the Egyptian desert as a hermit, and was regarded as one of the founders of Western monasticism; his asceticism resulted in vivid hallucinations or visions, which involved assault by demons in the form of wild animals or monsters that tore at his flesh (hence his patronage of those afflicted with erysipelas or St Anthony's Fire), and temptations of a more erotic nature. The subject had particularly attracted Northern artists, combining as it did the erotic with the monstrous, and in post-Christian art it continued to exercise a fascination.

According to Cannon-Brookes:

‘The Temptation of St. Anthony’ was begun in 1942 [...] and Michael Ayrton painted his own arms and legs to shadow the muscles and emphasize the veins before executing, with the use of mirrors, the figure of St Anthony from himself. This was exceptional, marking his deep emotional relationship with St Anthony, since Michael Ayrton very rarely worked from posed models

Elizabeth Ayrton writes:

Michael never used models, but positioned his own shoulders, or a leg, or hand, as he wanted it in whatever he was painting; observed it in a tall mirror (a cheval glass, in point of fact) and drew it in a pocket sketchbook, as one might make a note for a story one was writing. Unless it was a hand he would draw as he stood. He usually made such sketches as he was undressing for bed, but he never drew himself as a whole unless he was making a self-portrait.

I'm not sure how much he identified with St Anthony. Of course he did in some degree, but he also stood back from him, both in terms of a subject for solving certain problems in paint, and as a fascinating philosophical and psychological study. (Letter to the cataloguer, 28 April 1986.)

Ayrton worked on the painting in his studio at 67 Belsize Park Gardens, and completed it after moving to a larger studio in 4 All Souls Place. Although the work was exhibited in 1943, he continued to explore the theme until 1946; a second interpretation of the subject (in oil, 45 × 36 (1240 × 912), location unknown), depicting the isolated figure of the saint and dated ‘Autumn/Winter '45/46’ by the artist, was exhibited at the Redfern Gallery in March–April 1947 (no.19).

The present painting was exhibited at the Redfern Gallery in July 1943, together with 14 preliminary studies, including a compositional sketch in gouache; Robert Melville contributed a short introductory essay to the catalogue, which traces the development of the composition through the preliminary studies, and remains the most cogent account of Ayrton's interpretation of the subject:

Michael Ayrton's ‘Temptation of St Anthony’ recapitulates several aspects of the history of the theme. Schongauer & Grünewald depicted St Anthony receiving a terrible beating from a group of demons: they illustrated the notion that man is defenceless against the forces of temptation and is dependent upon divine intervention. The direct assault on the hermit in Michael Ayrton's version has something in common with the German illustrations, but the hermit has not given up the struggle. The demons are not zoomorphic inventions as in the work of Bosch, but macabre studies of the human figure, and if they are less horrific than the zoomorphs they are more sinister. The demon on the left is a debased and putrefying conjurer, performing with fire. The degenerate child holds out a cross to the hermit in imitation of an act of succour. In their use of miracle and holy emblem, and their open conniving with the bird which threatens the hermit's sight they powerfully demonstrate the forces of confusion.

The preliminary studies assembled for exhibition with the ‘Temptation’ reveal the many changes, formal and psychological, which have occurred during the process of elucidating the action. The charming female nude in one of the gouaches has become, in the final work, a demented harlot. The change in the placing of this figure was a brilliant move. In the gouache the woman is in the group of demons, but in the oil she has been set apart from the action, and the adjustment allows the figures closing in on the hermit to become personifications of his own impulses and associates the segregated female figure with the fissure in the rock, which in itself carries a sexual significance together with the inference that it is the mouth of hell.

Three of the preliminary studies (‘St Anthony No. xxi’, ‘Study for St Anthony’ and ‘Study for the Child in Temptation of St Anthony’, all dated 1942), in the collection of Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, are reproduced in Cannon-Brookes (op.cit., illus. 14–16, p.14), and another study appears in the Apollo review by ‘Perspex’. Six preliminary pencil-drawings were presented by Elizabeth Ayrton to the Tate Gallery and are deposited in the Archive; a further 13 sketches and drawings related to the painting, in gouache, pen and pencil, remain in the possession of Mrs Ayrton, and another 24 related studies are in other private collections.

Shortly after Ayrton had painted his interpretation of the subject, ‘The Temptation of St Anthony’ was the theme of a competition associated with the Loew-Lewin film ‘The Private Affairs of Bel Ami’ (United Artists, 1947), with Marcel Duchamp, Alfred H. Barr, Jr, and Sidney Janis as jurors. Entries were invited from twelve American and European artists, including Ivan Albright, Salvador Dali, Paul Delvaux, Max Ernst, Leonor Fini, Stanley Spencer and Dorothea Tanning. The resulting works were exhibited in 1946–7 by the American Federation of Arts, Washington, touring the United States and Britain, and Max Ernst's painting (now in the Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum, Duisburg), which had won the $2500 prize, was featured in the film itself.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986


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