We caught up with writer, critic and curator, Andrew Lambirth to discuss Celebrating Michael Ayrton: A Centenary Exhibition currently on display in the Main Gallery. Lambirth talks about his process behind creating the show and his favourite pieces.

Can you please tell us a bit about yourself, and how you started curating exhibitions?

I am an art historian by training and have spent most of my professional life, since the mid-1980s, as an art critic for magazines and newspapers, and writing books about artists. Michael Ayrton was among the first Modern British artists I was fascinated by: I discovered his work in 1976, the year after he died. It’s been a long-held ambition to curate an Ayrton exhibition. I began curating in 1990 when I was asked to make a personal choice of figurative painters for the Bristol City Art Gallery. That exhibition — Nine Contemporary Painters — was the first in an extended sequence of shows I’ve organised for UK museums and commercial galleries.

When did the plans for Celebrating Michael Ayrton: A Centenary Exhibition start?

In 1977, while a student at Nottingham University, I wanted to put on an Ayrton exhibition, but it was discouraged as the authorities felt I would neglect my course work. This centenary exhibition in many ways began then, although plans for it really started at the beginning of 2020 when I realised that no major retrospective was planned to celebrate Ayrton’s 100th. Then I had to move fast, and I am deeply grateful to the Ayrton Estate, to Keith Chapman, the main dealer in Ayrton’s work, to Jo Baring of The Ingram Collection and all the team at The Lightbox, for making this show happen.

What are your favourite pieces from the exhibition and why?

No exhibition of this sort is possible without the museums and private collectors who have generously loaned work. I was very keen to see early Ayrton paintings from public collections, and these are some of my favourites. Particularly the landscapes 'Entrance to a Wood', 'Broom Copse' and 'The Tip, Hanley'. All haunting in different ways, filled with the spirit of place. I find the 'Portrait of Constant Lambert' incredibly moving. And among the sculptures, I particularly like 'Point of Departure' for its different approach to self-portraiture: inventive and honest.

Point of Departure, 1970 © Keith Chapman Modern Sculpture

How have you found curating an exhibition during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Difficult and frustrating. I am a hands-on curator, and I wasn’t able to be. I couldn’t visit museum collections and private collectors, I couldn’t have proper meetings with the Ayrton family — everything had to be done remotely. I found this very counter-productive as I’m a passionate believer in the importance of experiencing a painting or sculpture face to face in order to make decisions about what would look best next to it. Also, public galleries were closed and most of the staff furloughed, so it was almost impossible to get a response about works we wanted to borrow. That said, we’ve managed to put together a pretty good display which I hope does Ayrton justice.

Exhibition view of Celebrating Michael Ayrton © The Lightbox

What is your next big project?

I’ve written a book with the sculptor Andrew Logan (b. 1945) about his life in art. He’s a most unusual sculptor who uses lots of broken mirrors in his portraits and mythological subjects. His work links art and fashion and pop music, and he founded The Alternative Miss World competition which will have its fiftieth anniversary in 2022. It’s a fancy dress contest with a difference, has been called 'a pansexual beauty pageant', and has attracted the likes of David Bowie, Zandra Rhodes, Derek Jarman, Vivienne Westwood, Brian Eno and Grayson Perry. Quite a contrast to Michael Ayrton!

Celebrating Michael Ayrton: A Centenary Exhibition is on display until 8 August 2021. Visitors can view the exhibition with a £7.50 Day Pass, Lightbox Members and Under 21s go free.