Artist and polymath Michael Ayrton (1921-75) was a key, but underrated, figure in post-war British art. Throughout his prolific career, he dabbled in painting, sculpture, illustration and even stage design, among others. His centenary retrospective, Celebrating Michael Ayrton highlights both the unconventional subject matter the artist explored and his passion for employing a multitude of mediums.

Ayrton was an extremely inventive artist, much of whose work revolved around his obsession with mythology, which he often used in his practice to create analogies with his own life. Below, we took a closer look at five of the main myths that appear in Michael Ayrton’s work.

  1. Demeter Pregnant, 1966

Michael Ayrton (1921-1975), Demeter Pregnant, 1966, bronze. Private Collection © Estate of the artist

Demeter, the middle daughter of Cronus and Rhea, was the Ancient Greek goddess of harvest, grain and fertility.

"This is one of the more luxuriant manifestations of the goddess that Ayrton sculpted or drew. Still youthful, she rests her newly-acquired but graceful bulk on a handy plinth and sits tautly, her arms braced behind her, as if ready to give birth at a moment’s notice. Ayrton concentrates on the rounded forms of the body, simplifying the face, making of the figure a dynamic whole." – Andrew Lambirth, Guest Curator

  1. Demeter and Kore, 1965

Michael Ayrton (1921-1975), Demeter and Kore, 1965, ink and wash. Image courtesy of The Ingram Collection © Estate of the artist

This work is an example of Michael Ayrton’s fascination, or obsession, with Greek mythology. Demeter is portrayed here alongside her daughter Kore, also known as Persephone. Kore is the formidable, venerable majestic queen of the underworld, the wife of Hades, and the personification of earth’s awakening, returning to the upper world each year, from spring to autumn, to spend time with her mother.

  1. Daedalus at Cumae, 1961

Michael Ayrton (1921-1975), Daedalus at Cumae, 1961, bronze with a dark brown patina. Private Collection © Estate of the artist

In Greek mythology, Daedalus was a skilful architect and craftsman, seen as a symbol of wisdom, knowledge and power. This sculpture is a depiction of Daedalus after he managed to reach Cumae in Sicily, in the aftermath of the loss of Icarus, and their imprisonment by King Minos, for whom he built the labyrinth.

Legend says that Theseus is challenged to kill the Minotaur, finding his way out of the labyrinth with the help of Ariadne's thread. Daedalus is actually the one who gives Ariadne the clue as to how to escape the labyrinth. Due to this, after Theseus and Ariadne flee together, Daedalus and his son Icarus were imprisoned by King Minos in the labyrinth itself.

  1. Icarus Sunstruck, 1959-60

Michael Ayrton (1921-1975), Icarus Sunstruck, 1959-60, oil and mixed media on board. Private Collection © Estate of the artist

In order to escape, Daedalus built wings for himself and Icarus, by using feathers and sticking them together with wax. Before they left the labyrinth, he warned Icarus not to fly too high as the sun would melt the wax, nor too low as the seawater would soak the feathers.

Icarus, forgetting his father's advice, started flying higher and higher, and as he reached for the sun the wax on his wings started to melt. This abstract painting depicts the climax of the tale, the moment when Icarus’ wings are struck by the sun, frozen in time right before his descent into the sea.

  1. Point of Departure, 1970

Michael Ayrton (1921-1975), Point of Departure, 1970, bronze. Private Collection © Estate of the artist

"This sculpture offers a very different approach to self-portraiture than the usual mirror image. It depicts Ayrton’s naked stocky figure in active engagement with some of his obsessions.

Here he is, plodding through the Maze, symbolised by the double-headed axe, in pursuit of the Minotaur, who is seen cowering on the other side of the bronze wall. Icarus, who can be seen soaring above him on polished bronze wings, is getting close to the sun and his own particular doom. So here, in one complex sculpture, we have several points of departure: through the maze, and in pursuit of both the Minotaur and Icarus (and by extension Daedalus)." – Andrew Lambirth, Guest Curator

Celebrating Michael Ayrton: A Centenary Exhibition is open in the Main Gallery until 8 August 2021. Entry is £7.50 with a Day Pass and free for Lightbox Members and under 21s.