Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Black magic in the White Country: Michael Ayrton and Aleister Crowley

You can’t venture far into pre-‘fifties Bohemia without bumping into the sad but morbidly fascinating figure of Aleister Crowley, the Great Beast. But is it always the real Crowley that we meet, or an apparition?

Michael Ayrton

Peter Cannon-Brookes’ 1978 monograph on neo-romantic wonder boy, painter and maze-maker Michael Ayrton contains this intriguing allusion:

“During 1941 Michael Ayrton’s friendship with the composer Cecil Gray and the mystical circle including Barnet[sic] Stross, Freda Cavell, James Laver and above all Margery Livingstone[sic], and its links with Alistair[sic] Crowley, began to take on a new significance.”

Beyond a hint at “deeply disturbing elements” in Ayrton’s writing, we’re not told what this “new significance” was, nor what Crowley may have had to do with it. Confidence is not strengthened by the misspelling of three names. (Nor by the possible garbling of a fourth: is “Freda Cavell”, a name I can’t place, an inadvertent blend of Lady Frieda Harris, designer of Crowley’s Thoth tarot, with Edith Cavell, the subject of one of his more offensive articles?)

But how “mystical” was Ayrton’s circle? And how did Crowley fit in? Having ditched my Crowley biographies (and other Crowleyana) some years ago following my liberation from Crowleyanity, I don’t have many references handy, but the other names can be quickly sketched in for now: Cecil Gray, music critic and composer; James Laver, writer, fashion historian, curator at the V&A, and contributor to a 1948 monograph on Ayrton; Marjorie Livingston, clairaudient, psychic writer and lecturer; Dr (later Sir) Barnett Stross, art collector and from 1945 MP for Hanley, one of the “six towns” of the Potteries.

Barnett Stross

Barnett Stross

Ten years after Cannon-Brookes, Malcolm Yorke, in The Spirit of Place, 1988, came up with a  startling claim about Stross:

“[Ayrton] was at this time interested in the occult and may have met, on his Fitzrovian travels, the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley, who was by this time past his best … [Crowley] had also been defeated in battles across the ether by the white witch Barnett Stross, MP for Stoke-on-Trent, and inevitably a friend of the Ayrton family. It is impossible at this distance to know how deeply Ayrton took this interest …”

“Doc” Stross, popular family GP, Labour councillor and re-builder of Lidice – a “white witch” engaged in Dennis Wheatley-style astral fisticuffs with the Beast? But by the time we reach Justine Hopkins’ Michael Ayrton: a Biography, 1994, this “may have met” scenario has firmed up alarmingly:

“Cecil [Gray] had known the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley, in the days of his power, and on one occasion introduced him to Michael, although the latter was little impressed by the bloated, boastful charlatan that Crowley had become since his fatal experiments in Paris. He was, however, the cause of a confrontation between the Beast and Barnett Stross, GP, MP and white wizard. Hearing through Cecil that Crowley had some particularly inventive and unpleasant devilry in mind he protested violently, and summoned Stross to the battle across the aether with his dark counterpart. Stross apparently triumphed, and Crowley threatened revenge on Michael in no uncertain terms; the fact that no disaster befell him only went to confirm the scepticism which was an essential part of his involvement with the spirit world.”

So Ayrton not only met Crowley, but set Stross against him, and was threatened by Crowley for his pains? In Hopkins’ index Crowley’s first name is spelt as “Alastair”, suggesting Cannon-Brookes as her source. But “battle across the aether” is obviously lifted directly from Yorke. Are the extra bits from a third source, or just a creative embroidering of Yorke’s story?

The Temptation of St Anthony, 1942-3

The Temptation of St Anthony, 1942-3

But it doesn’t stop there. It’s a simple step forward in wishful thinking to have Ayrton not only meeting Crowley but becoming his student. Here’s novelist and art writer Michael Bracewell pronouncing on ‘Magic and Modernity in British Art’ in Tate Etc. 17, Autumn 2009 (my emphasis):

“The Neo-Romantic sensibility had some occasional links to the world of contemporary operational magic; the artist Michael Ayrton, for example, became interested in the occult during the early 1940s and in the writings of Aleister Crowley, “The Great Beast”, who by this time was more of a Fitzrovian casualty and proto-Beat than a persuasive magician.”

The word “Fitzrovian” here may betray Yorke as the inspiration, with “past his best” inflated to “casualty and proto-Beat.” (The Beast as a Beat? I suppose we understand what he means.) Ayrton as Crowleyan was also cemented into the record by Martin Clark of Tate St Ives, interviewed on the occasion of its show ‘The Dark Monarch’ in 2009:

“We know that Michael Ayrton was interested in Aleister Crowley’s writing.”

Do “we know” this? No, we don’t actually, but that doesn’t prevent this “knowledge” from passing into circulation and ending up (inevitably) as a selling point for Ayrtons. The hammer price of The Satyr Disturbed recently doubled its estimate at Sworders auctions with a description that confidently declared (my emphasis):

“During the 1940s, Ayrton became interested in the occult, and specifically in the writings of the magician-mystic, Aleister Crowley.”

The creative slipping-in of “specifically” now makes Ayrton not just a student of Crowley, but a disciple! How much of this has any substance? Anthony Clayton, at his antonine itineraries blog, has previously taken a look at some of it and found it a bit of a magickal bubble. I agree. But behind the hype lurk some interesting connections that do bear scrutiny. Back to the “mystical circle” of Ayrton’s friends …

cecil grayCecil Gray had been a close friend and biographer of suicidal composer and naked motor bike rider Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock). In her Sword of Wisdom, 1975, surrealist and occultist Ithell Colquhoun confidently lists Warlock among the membership of Crowleyan lodges. So it’s quite possible that Gray had met Crowley through him. Though he is little recognised as a composer, one of Gray’s three operas was The Temptation of St Anthony, composed in 1935-7 to his own libretto based on the novel by Flaubert. My friend Gerald Leach, who has a copy of the score, comments that he uses instrumental ensembles and colours deeply informed by the ancient religious music of Assyria, India, Greece and Israel, which rather suggests a “mystical” intention. In 1942-3 Ayrton produced his own hysterically overwrought painting on this theme, whose inspiration must have been Gray’s opera; Malcolm Yorke associates Ayrton’s occult tendencies with “some quite extreme spiritual crisis being worked through in various studies for The Temptation of St Anthony.

James Laver in 1948

James Laver in 1948

The dilettantism of Ayrton’s friend James Laver also took on some curious directions. To while away wartime train journeys, according to his 1975 Times obituary (republished here), Laver set himself the task of reading every book on occultism in the London Library. His resulting study of Nostradamus was published in 1942, and was the first to identify the “Hister” bits as referring to Hitler. According to T W M van Berkel, Laver’s material fed into a black propaganda brochure on Nostradamus authored in German for the Special Operations Executive by the astrologer Louis de Wohl (who also cast Laver’s horoscope) and printed by Ellic Howe of the Psychological Warfare Executive, himself later a well known chronicler of the Golden Dawn.

In his introduction to Paintings by Michael Ayrton (Grey Walls Press, 1948), while discussing Ayrton’s notable 1945 broadcast on Picasso as a “master of pastiche”, Laver makes this extraordinary comment:

“The Litany of Art, Picasso has recited backwards. Everything he does is à rebours and characterised by the same purposeful distortion. It is the very mark of diabolism, and Picasso is the great black magician of our time – its most typical figure therefore, the equivalent in the world of contemplation of those other black magicians who have laid waste both Europe and the European soul … Ayrton is the first to acknowledge his own debt to Picasso, if it is only a debt to a ‘black magicism’ from whose toils he has escaped but whose methods have given a permanent impress to his own practice.”

Picasso as black magician and Art Nazi? A bit strong, surely. But Laver had diabolism on his mind at the time, having visited the ageing Crowley in his Hastings boarding house the year before, as briefly recounted in his 1963 autobiography. At this high point of English neo-romanticism, art and magic seem to have been all one to Laver:

“… the magicians and occultists of all ages have known that everything that is without is also within. Art therefore comes full circle and returns to the World of Magic from whence it sprung.”

Such airy Neo-platonisms don’t mean too much on close inspection, but they show where Laver was at. As a historian of fashion he is still well regarded, but much of his thinking seems to have emerged from that curious between-the-wars alternative-progressive world of gymnosophy, Co-masonry, the Woodcraft movement and so forth. There are suggestions (as on this forum) that Laver also knew Austin Osman Spare, and that he may have been associated with a coven that met at Chanctonbury Ring on the South Downs during the ‘forties. Maybe, maybe not. But it is worth noting that Ayrton painted a Paul Nash-style view of the Ring in 1946, Track to Chanctonbury (shown here). Laver certainly knew Gerald Gardner through a shared interest in naturism, and contributed a foreword to J L Bracelin’s 1960 biography of the creator of Wicca.

Constant Lambert by Ayrton

Constant Lambert by Ayrton

But what of the alleged white wizard, Barnett Stross MP? In 1944 Ayrton and his close friend the composer Constant Lambert called in on Stross during a visit to the Royal Ballet, then in wartime exile at Stoke-on-Trent. Stross, as quoted by Justine Hopkins, took them to the Great Tip at Hanley:

“… a dumping ground for old shards. Beneath the crockery there is a colony of rats, for when the potters empty and tip into this hole there is often food in the way of bread mixed up with the fragments. I took Michael to see this place one summer evening before dusk, and he saw the rats come up for an airing. Little ones and large ones, brown and badger and some were scabrous…”

The Sleeper in the White Country, 1945

The Sleeper in the White Country, 1945

Ayrton, who found the rest of the Potteries colourless and puritanical, was much taken with the Tip, where, as he recalled, “a million broken cups and saucers make for rats a porcelain Chicago.” The following year he painted a spectral view of the Tip with an unexplained naked man in the foreground. This was titled The White Country, but is listed today as The Sleeper in the White Country, perhaps to distinguish it from a Mintonesque view of the clay dusted Potteries streetscape, The White Country, painted in 1946, and a view of The Tip, Hanley, minus naked figure, of the same year – both shown below.

The “sleeper” at the Tip is very clearly the same person featured in the rather alarming The Sleeper in Flight of 1943 (below), said by Cannon-Brookes to be an image of the young Nicholas Malleson, which I take to mean Dr Nicholas Malleson, later Director of Health Services at the University of London, who in the ‘sixties advocated the legalisation of all hallucinogenic drugs, declaring: “I’ve known many young women I’d rather see take LSD than Billy Graham.” (Young men too, presumably.) Though why is it Malleson at the Tip?

The Tip, Hanley, 1946

The Tip, Hanley, 1946

Whatever his identity, it seems to me that the “Sleeper” may be occupied less in normal dreaming than in astral projection, which could lend some credence to the “white witch” business. Indeed, The Sleeper in the White Country was purchased by Barnett Stross; could the “white” of White Country mean something more than clay dust? The Sleeper may be related to the prone naked figure in The Earthbound of 1944 (below), itself anticipated by the sunbather in Joan in the Fields of the previous year. However the lying man in Earthbound seems not so much asleep as psychically knocked out, recalling Mantegna’s The Bewitched Groom, an image Ayrton could not have failed to know.

The White Country, 1946

The White Country, 1946

I’m sympathetic to Ayrton’s 1946 rallying call, in British Drawings, for “the lyrical, the satiric, the mystical, the romantic and the preoccupation with linear rhythms, which are the bones and basis of our art.” But his own work, however admirable, was not “destined to shape the future of British art,” as Wyndham Lewis had predicted. At times his mannered, arcane, literary quirkiness puts him close to the eccentric illustration of Mervyn Peake, which some of his earlier drawings resemble; no coincidence that Grey Walls Press put out a volume of Peake’s drawings the year after their Ayrton book.

The Sleeper in Flight, 1943

The Sleeper in Flight, 1943

One last small piece of spookiness: in 1952 Ayrton married Elisabeth Balchin, another graduate of the wartime Special Operations Executive. Her first husband, Nigel Balchin, while seconded from the National Institute of Industrial Psychology in 1933 as a consultant to Rowntrees, had personally created an iconic brand of chocolates. You’ve guessed it – ‘Black Magic’ …

The Earthbound, 1944

The Earthbound, 1944

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4 responses to “Black magic in the White Country: Michael Ayrton and Aleister Crowley

  1. Richard Clay March 23, 2013 at 9:39 pm

    Any thoughts on how reliable Martin Booth’s Crowley bio is? Booth has C’s last words as ‘Sometimes I hate myself.’ I’ve brooded on this quite a lot and – in context – don’t find it as negative as it sounds. What are we to make of a lad born into the Plymouth Brethren, going on to have Crowley’s career, then ending with those four words? Seems a bit prodigal son-like to me. The puce look likely to be on the faces of ‘the religious right’ and of assorted wannabe-Illuminati, at the thought of an ultimately repentant Crowley, is deeply pleasing. R

    Date: Sat, 23 Mar 2013 11:14:27 +0000 To: richardbruceclay@hotmail.com

  2. richardawarren March 24, 2013 at 8:54 am

    Hi Richard. Not really my field, but accounts of AC’s last words seem to vary wildly. “I’m perplexed” is also given. But I like your sentiments. One would hope that he found a final moment of forgiveness for all the lives he’d messed up along his way to Ipsissimus. Forgiveness doesn’t loom large in the doctrines of Thelema …

  3. Philip Barlow May 23, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    Crowley (buy the best accounts) died alone during the night so no last words were ever recorded.
    As for Crowley’s portrayal as the wickedest man in the world al I can say is your reading the wrong books.

    • richardawarren May 23, 2013 at 7:48 pm

      Hello Philip. Well sure, we don’t really know. Maybe you’re offended by the suggestion that AC might have drawn on something in his Christian upbringing in his final moments of loneliness and doubt? It’s only a bit of speculation, of course, but personally, I would like to think that he did. As for “wickedest man in the world”, I haven’t used that meaningless phrase, and neither have any of the (inaccurate) sources I’ve examined here. Out of interest, what you recommend as the best biography of AC?

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