Icarus III

Smithsonian Institution Space Museum
                     Washington, D.C

Icarus III

St. Paul's Cathedral

Michael Ayrton

Born in 1921 to an avant garde English couple, Barbara Ayrton, socialist politician, and Gerald Gould, poet and literary critic, he was trained as a painter and draftsman.

 The history of his youth reflects his independent and unconventional beginnings and includes early years spent with a cousin in Vienna. Both public speaking and writing came easily to him. By age 23 he produced a significant book on the subject of British Drawings and in that year gave up a teaching position to take over as art critic as The Spectator. Art critic, illustrator of numerous books, painter, set designer for ballet and theater, prolific contributor to periodicals, writer of numerous books, his life was not one destined to be specialized in a fashion acceptable to overseers of British art matters. This is true, though his work demonstrated sufficient merit to identify him as one of two or three young talents destined to "shape the future of British art." (Wyndham Lewis, 1949).

His nature, perhaps his strength of self/ego, his independent spirit and keen intelligence kept his artistic curiosity focused upon matters appearing to his attention concurrent to his growth and exposure to universal and classical influences. Travels to Italy brought appreciation of Itallian Renaissance works. In Greece, and in particular at Cumae, where Virgil places Daedalus' landing after his escape from the Labyrinth on Crete, Ayrton was emotionally moved by the legend of Theseus and took the thread of it into himself, somehow becoming, in the process, a kind of latter-day Daedalus, successfully completing in solid materials the stuff of Virgil's story.

Thus, Ayrton designed and built a monumental maze in Troy, New York, finalizing the event with an almost theoretically impossible cast of a honeycomb in pure gold, complete with honey bee, just as the legend foretold. He incarnated his spirit into that of the Minotaur, imagining artistically what it might be like to be such a creature, part beast and part human, from its earliest awakening as a life form in the uterus of the Queen to its maturation as a beast with a palate tuned to savor the flesh of Greek youth. And, though his work was uniformly superb, from drawing through etching to sculpture, and though his output of completed work was formidable, there was something about his nature that kept him from achieving the kind of status due.

Though recognized at once as a major and significant talent by those influential in the United States, Stanley Johnson, of Chicago, for example, Ayrton, even to this day, remains oddly unheralded in his own country. He died very young: 1975, at the age of 54. Even when death should have erased the envy of fellow countrymen, envy of his profound intelligence, perhaps, for as C. P. Snow writes in a forward to a book, by Ayrton about Ayrton's drawings and sculptures (1962), "We believe in the dumb-ox, the primitive. This is one of the oddest tendencies in advanced Western society. . .and is . . . responsible for both his lonely position among his contemporaries and for the direction in which his art has gone."

My collection (J.C. Leissring Fine Arts) includes twenty-one works, eight of which are sculptures in bronze, including the remarkable Icarus III, one of three extant casts, the two others on view at the Smithsonian Institution Space Museum, Washington, D.C. and in front of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. One bronze is unique, the Mirror Maze, previously owned by the artist. There is one drawing in ink, four early lithographs depicting a style and interest of that period, and seven etchings.