Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Michael Ayrton

The time-flats of Trianon: temporal paradox in ‘The Childermass’

In Wyndham Lewis’s extraordinary 1928 satire The Childermass, recently deceased odd couple Pullman and Satterthwaite (a Don Quixote and Sancho Panza pairing, or aspects of James Joyce and Gertrude Stein if you prefer) wander the “Time-flats”, the unstable purgatorial landscapes of the hereafter, as they seek admission to the heavenly Magnetic City.

The Punch-like Bailiff surveys the Time-flats, in Michael Ayrton's cover for the 1956 edition

The Punch-like Bailiff surveys the Time-flats, in Michael Ayrton’s cover for the 1956 edition

In one more than averagely baffling episode Pulley and Satters find that they have meandered into a “Time-scene” where all becomes smaller in an artificially diminishing perspective, and – as in H G Wells’s 1901 story The New Accelerator – people and animals are frozen in immobility. Arriving at a living tableau straight out of Rowlandson, they identify the time as the late eighteenth century, and the place as Islington – specifically, the Old Red Lion Tavern where, as Pullman recalls, Tom Paine wrote his Rights of Man.

As childish Satters peeps into the garden of the tavern, he sees three men around a table, on which is placed “an object the size of a large hen’s egg, of bright ultramarine …” Fascinated, Satters tweaks the pigtail of one of the miniature figures, which, coming to life, upbraids him “with a slight American accent,” proving itself to be Paine. (The identity of the other two figures sat before the egg is not suggested, though the Williams Blake and Godwin might be a fair bet.)

Satters and Pulley, by Ayrton

Satters and Pulley, by Ayrton

Pullman, perhaps aware of the terrible dangers, familiar to all science fiction readers, that might result from interference with the past, is horrified. But he is powerless to restrain his companion, who, in a fit of spite, snatches up the miniature Paine and runs off with him. The mannikin sinks his teeth into Satters’s hand, who retaliates by trampling him “in an ecstasy of cruelty … into an inert flattened mass.” Having gratuitously killed off the Enlightenment and human rights, the pair are abruptly flung back into the present, or at least, what passes for time present in their shifting afterlife.

The episode is touched on by several commentators, but I’m not aware of much analysis of the details. In the novel as in his wider work, Lewis is concerned with what he sees as the deleterious cultural and political effects of “time philosophies”, and in particular the subjectivised model of time as creative flux promoted so influentially by the philosopher Henri Bergson. Alan Munton has noted how the instability of the landscape, much of it apparently invented by the grotesque Bailiff who presides over the entrance to the City, suggests the untrustworthy and contingent nature both of fiction itself and of the political structures embodied by the Bailiff. More recently Jonathan Goodwin has also highlighted the relevance of the novel to the political climate of the late ‘twenties.

But why the eighteenth century? And why Tom Paine? And what is the mysterious blue egg that so attracts Satterthwaite? Maybe this episode comes a bit more into focus when set alongside a possible source for Lewis, the bestselling An Adventure of 1911 and 1913 – the first hand accounts of the “Moberly-Jourdain incident,” sometimes tagged as “the ghosts of Versailles”. The incident is well covered in a Wikipedia entry, and the texts of both editions are available here and here, but the main points can be quickly outlined.

In August 1901 two English women, Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain, both teachers and daughters of clergy, visited Versailles. Losing their way on a walk to the Petit Trianon, they experienced, according to their own accounts, a sense of oppressive unreality. They encountered a number of people in more or less old fashioned clothing, but each also noticed, at a distance, figures that the other did not, including a woman sitting sketching whom Moberly later identified as Marie Antoinette.

an adventureComparing notes later, they agreed that the location had been in some sense haunted, and embarked on a decade of detailed research into the historical background. On return visits to Versailles they failed to recognise many features of the landscape they had walked through, but later claimed, on the basis of their research, that these had existed in the late eighteenth century. In 1911, as “Elizabeth Morison” and “Frances Lamont”, they first published their accounts and the exhaustive results of their research.

The affair hardly deserves a place in the museum of hoaxes alongside the Cottingley Fairies and so forth, if only because, barring outright fabrication, which appears unlikely, the precise nature of the matter eludes satisfactory definition. The two most respectable “solutions” later offered – (1) a folie à deux triggered by repressed lesbian desires, and (2) that the pair wandered unwittingly into a fancy dress charade organised by neighbouring decadent Robert de Montesquiou – are both so fantastical as to make the suggestion of time travel seem entirely moderate.

Charlotte Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain

Charlotte Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain

Both women owned “the faith of our fathers”, found ghosts “unconvincing”, and “studiously avoid[ed]” spiritualism as “utterly lowering”. However, Moberly did confess to “powers of second sight” and to other, less substantial, psychic moments. In 1902, the year after the event, they submitted their accounts to the Society for Psychical Research, though a later review of their book in the Proceedings of the Society was sceptical, suggesting a misinterpretation of actual events. But Moberly and Jourdain concluded that in some way “we had entered into the working of the Queen’s memory while she was still alive.” Their experience had not been of time travel pure and simple, nor of a haunting, but of some sort of historical-psychological slippage.

An Adventure became, briefly, a best seller, and lodged itself for some time in the popular consciousness as a psychic cause célèbre. (I remember being told about it by a teacher on a visit to Versailles in the ‘sixties.) Lewis would almost certainly have known of the book, and its relevance for his vision of Bergsonian time in The Childermass is clear. There are several similarities.

In both cases the landscape is unrecognisable and landmarks altered. Moberly and Jourdain recall passing over a small rustic bridge over a waterfall leading to a small pool. On subsequent visits they could find no evidence of these features. Conversely, Pullman and Satters can see no sign of an expected river, the one “real” landmark by which they hope to find their way.

Both landscapes feel artificial. Moberly: “In front of us was a wood … Everything suddenly looked unnatural, therefore unpleasant; even the trees behind the building seemed to have become flat and lifeless, like a wood worked in tapestry. There were no effects of light and shade, and no wind stirred the trees. It was all intensely still.” Lewis: “‘It’s like a picture,’ Satters suggests … Nothing seems to be moving on its surface … It is a little faded like a very much enlarged rustic colour-print.” And: “’It’s a panorama! Look at that hedge. Do you see its perspective? It’s built in a diminishing perspective.’”

While Moberly and Jourdain converse freely with some of those they meet, Jourdain also carefully notes the near immobility of others seen at a distance: “The woman was standing on the steps, bending slightly forward, holding a jug in her hand. The girl was looking up at her from below with her hands raised, but nothing in them … I remember that both seemed to pause for an instant, as in a tableau vivant; but we passed on, and I did not see the end.” Compare with Lewis: “A group of posturing figures, with the silhouettes of ancient fashion-plates, pivot and point to all quarters of the compass, occupied with the view. Their arms stand outstretched, as stiff as cannons, or travel slowly across what they are surveying.”

In each case disconnected or disembodied sounds are experienced. Moberly and Jourdain hear the sound of a running man some time before his “sudden” appearance. On a second, solo visit the following year Jourdain heard the rustling of silk dresses and voices speaking in French: “I turned round sharply to see who they were, but saw no one … Faint music, as of a band, not far off, was audible … Both voices and music were diminished in tone, as in a phonograph, unnaturally. The pitch of the band was lower than usual. The sounds were intermittent …” Pullman and Satters hear an “ominous hollow thumping”, which “sounds rather near” but fluctuates. Pullman points out that here “near and far are very relative”, and interprets the sound as the hammering of a sculptor, which perhaps suggests the fabrication of the landscape.

Moberly and Jourdain eventually concluded that “… if we have entered into an act of memory, it may well have been first made on the terrible 10th of August, 1792, though the memory itself was occupied … with the events of October 5th, 1789 … There is an incoherence … which seems to require combination within a single mind, and the only mind to which they could all have been present would have been that of the Queen … she may … have seen the trees, as one sees trees in recollection, like a picture without life, depth or movement.” Their narrative may have struck Lewis as a text-book case of time experienced in the Bergsonian mode. As already mentioned, the women submitted their accounts to the Society for Psychical Research; in 1913, the year of the second edition of An Adventure, Bergson accepted the presidency of that Society.

On October 5 1789 the royal couple were expelled from Versailles; August 10 1792 was the day of the insurrectionary occupation of the Tuileries that effectively ended the monarchy. In March 1791, about halfway between these two events, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man was published, in part a defence of the French Revolution. Lewis has Pullman and Satters slip through time to a point of influence symmetrical with the events across the Channel re-remembered by Moberly and Jourdain.

Later in The Childermass, Pullman and Satterthwaite listen to the lengthy, ranting pronouncements of the Bailiff before his audience of appellants, clamouring to enter Heaven. At one point the Bailiff explains that “… you are entirely without rights. For your share you shall have the right of petitioning! That my poor friends is your Bill of Rights – so it has been, so it shall always be – in that I can alter nothing. Call it a Bill of Wrongs, I cannot help you! I am not the Legislator.” Pullman, whose sympathies are with the Bailiff, responds by shouting out impulsively: “Well come that’s something!”

Lewis’s italics are a direct quote from Paine, whose original irony is compounded by our realisation that, as the Bailiff puts it, “so it has been, so it shall always be.” The world of despotism figureheaded by the Bailiff is a world where the constitutional rights advocated by Paine have never been won, because Paine, thanks to Satters’s moment of puerile anger, has ceased to exist.

I have not been able to find a reference to such a “temporal paradox” theme in any science fiction before the 1940’s. If this is the case, Lewis appears to have been the first writer to use the idea.

great mogulBut what of the ultramarine egg on Paine’s table that stirs up the “kindergarten intensity” of Satters’s inquisitiveness? Lewis tells us: “It is the egg stolen from the Great Mogul the Virgin egg.” The missing punctuation (so effective when Lewis reproduces the rhythms of vernacular speech) is not helpful here, and the two terms require separation. The fabulous Great Mogul diamond, cut in the shape of an egg and of a bluish tinge, disappeared in 1747, believed stolen on the assassination of its possessor, Nadir Shah of Persia. The Mogul is the diamond, not the owner, though the confusion here may be on the part of Satters rather than of Lewis. Satters at first assumes that the object must be a large jewel, but in reality it is the “Virgin egg” whose effluence both attracts and repels him, for “to touch it spells discovery”.

The term “Virgin egg” is Theosophical jargon. In Blavatsky’s tediously convoluted symbolic cosmology, it is the egg of pre-cosmic, undifferentiated matter, now penetrated by the ray from the Logos and descending to the plane of manifestation. It contains in itself the promise of the entire universe, and so can be identified with the Akashic (aetheric) egg, sometimes shown as blue or purple. In Theosophy the “Akashic Records” are the energetic imprint on the Akasha of all experiences of all lifetimes in all realities, an accessible holographic repository of past occurrences and future potentials. Essentially, the Egg is an image of the Bergsonian time-flux, condensed.

What business has it in the hands of the rationalist Paine? As Lewis must have been aware, and as an online search will speedily confirm, Theosophists have long claimed Paine as an adept, if only for his universalist deism and his interest in freemasonry. In the moments immediately preceding his premature demise beneath the football boots of the “psychic clown” Satters, Lewis has Paine in adoration of the essence of the very time-philosophy that enables the two interlopers to cancel out his existence. It is a fine Lewisian irony.

The eighteenth century misadventure of Pulley and Satters is less science fiction than parable. For Lewis, subjectivist time philosophies of the Bergsonian and Theosophist kind, becoming dominant in the twentieth century, are far from progressive. They are sympathetic to a fiction-making that redefines the past, and the present and future in terms of that past, setting cultural forces at the service of ideological control. As the Bailiff’s antagonist Hyperides puts it: “That Time-factor … that you have put back to obsess, with its movement, everything – … what is that accomplishing except the breaking-down of all our concrete world into a dynamical flux, whose inhuman behests we must follow, instead of it waiting on us?”

Picasso the diabolist

Some follow-ups to my earlier post on the painter Michael Ayrton, his interest (or lack of) in the ideas of Aleister Crowley, and his travels, astral or otherwise, in the “White Country” of the Potteries: Laver

The recollections of Ayrton’s friend James Laver, V&A curator and dabbler in the arcane, shed no light on any of this, nor on Barnett Stross’s alleged but unlikely astral battles with Crowley, though Laver’s gossipy autobiography Museum Piece (1963) is notable for its detailed account of his visit to Old Crow in Hastings in March 1947. By this point the Beast was sadly in decline, shooting up several times during the conversation; Laver noted the spots of blood on his shirt sleeves. He had been introduced to Crowley back in the ‘twenties by Gwendoline Otter, but makes no mention of him in connection with Ayrton or Stross.

Laver’s attack on Picasso as dictator and black magician turns out to be derived directly from Ayrton’s broadcast “A Master of Pastiche. A Personal Reaction to Picasso”, subsequently anthologised in John Lehmann’s New Writing and Daylight VII for 1946:

“I do not believe that it is possible to create living art out of anything but the direct visual experience of nature, combined with the heritage of a tradition, unless it be by the practice of magic ritual. Since Picasso does not attempt the former, he must be considered in terms of the latter, and considered in these terms his processes of stylistic inversion and formal disintegration are black magic, no more, no less … The parallel with black magic can be carried further, for destructive distortion and alteration of ritual is the basis of diabolism. To his most devoted admirers he is celebrated for his gift for paraphrase. Black magic is also the cult of personal power, and fame goes with it. Of these two latter attributes Picasso shows no lack. He is the most powerful influence and the most famous artist alive, but is it possible that any contribution to the mainstream of European art can be made by his particular form of diabolic egocentricity? In view of the fact that black magic is a death cult and in view of the fact that the whole impetus of Picasso’s art stems from manners and modes created for now extinct ends – the Romanesque, Catalan primitives, the Greek vase and medieval stained glass are examples – he is a very master of necrophily …

… It is part of his power that he is able to embrace the efforts of lesser men and restate their aims, in his own terms and in relation to the formula current in his own work. This in itself is the hallmark of a particular form of genius. But more than all this, his power lies in his position relative to his times, his temporal domination. Nor is this incompatible with the archaism of the different stylistic starting points of each new ‘époque.’ It is that Picasso is contemporary in the hysteria of his art in exactly the same way that Hitler is contemporary in the hysteria of his politics, much of which – anti-semitism is an example – is archaic in principle.”

This is an audacious critique, but it bears consideration. Its weakness is perhaps less its analysis of Picasso’s process than its rather dated, ‘nineties characterisation of “diabolism” as inversion, reversal etc. Despite his monstrous egotism and pursuit of personal power, Crowley was not a Satanist in any strict sense, and the terms in which Ayrton talks rather suggest that he had no real familiarity with AC’s theories. If so, the speculations documented in my previous post cannot stand.

Ayrton’s own work was perhaps excessively literary. Alan Munton points out to me that Robert Colquhoun once accused Ayrton of being a painter who did too much thinking, a distraction best avoided in that trade. “But what about Wyndham Lewis?” countered Ayrton. “Aye,” conceded Colquhoun. “But what a painter! Let him think if he wants to …”

Barnett Stross in 1935, by Margaret Marks

Barnett Stross in 1935, by Margaret Marks

Next, my thanks to Mark Finney for taking the Michael Ayrton-Barnett Stross connection in a new and interesting direction. The doings of the “Burslem Boys” – Potteries painters John Shelton, Arthur Berry and Norman Cope – are chronicled admirably on Mark’s site, with the benefit of his access to original documents in the keeping of the families of Shelton and Cope. The latter died tragically in 1943, but his own surviving lists of his work note two pieces sold to Barnett Stross (one being The Beer Drinker, for 6 guineas), and at least two “sold to Ayrton” for 3 and 5 guineas, including The Window Gazers. Both named pieces were brush drawings.

Cope’s combination of meticulous draftsmanship with an extreme expressionism would certainly have attracted Ayrton, but one particular title on the list leaps out in connection with Ayrton’s own work – an item called Shraff Tip, “shraff” being broken ceramic waste from the potteries. Browsing Cope’s work and seeing this image, Ayrton may well have picked up the idea for his own later pieces, The Tip and The Sleeper, discussed in my earlier post.

Finally, apologies for having doubted the existence of Freda Cavell, with thanks to Bill Bennett for pointing out that in Frances Spalding’s biography of John Minton, Dance till the Stars Come Down, she has a walk-on part in 1945 as “the Witch of Streatham”. (Though Google only recognises the title as applied, oddly enough, by Iain Sinclair to Angela Carter, of all people …)

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

“Weirdly overwrought and hysterical”: Leslie Hurry and other neo-romantics at Tate Britain

At Tate Britain the Clore Gallery has been rebranded till next June, putting Turner within the broader context of The Romantics. (Details on the Tate site via the Collection Displays pages.) The whole thing is well devised and curated, and it’s good to see the odd Blake, Palmer or Fuseli in there among the straighter stuff. And as a little bonus, it all signs off with a separately curated roomful of 20thc neo-romantics.

Which, naturally, includes a bunch of Sutherlands (always a pleasure, especially the rich early etchings) and the regulation nod to Piper and Nash. But it’s also a joy to be able to inspect a totally gonzoid Michael Ayrton, a brooding John Craxton, and Keith Vaughan’s Cain and Abel, in which Vaughan appears to have stretched the scriptural record by having Cain slay his brother, Samson-like, with the jawbone of an ass. (A weensie bit strained, and not one of his best, but what the heck? Any Vaughan on show is a gift these days, and we should be grateful for this one.)

The relevant Tate web page also appears to promise John Minton, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, but no such luck. A pity. Though it’s only a small space and you can’t have everything, it is all rather Sutherland-heavy, and a sample from these three would have made things more considered. But in compensation for the omission, tucked in at the end, there is This Extraordinary Year, 1945 by Leslie Hurry.

Leslie Hurry, 'Conflict', 1944

Oo-er. Blimey! Leslie who? The name wasn’t too familiar, but on the strength of this painting it is clearly one to conjure with. It’s not possible to link to images of this or any other of his six pieces in the Tate collection, thanks to copyright restrictions (boo!), but This Extraordinary Year is an extraordinary painting, in which a glowing and naked Liberty raises the red flag among a writhing, apocalyptic mass of figures that includes a pope and a politician trampled under the revolutionary surge. Sound stuff!

Available information on Hurry seems limited, though a quick google will give an idea of his style. There is no mention of him in Remy’s irritatingly doctrinaire Surrealism in Britain, though he explored and exhibited automatic drawing, was tagged an “ultra-surrealist”, and was related to the painter John Armstrong (John Hurry Armstrong), whom for that matter Remy also writes off as less than surrealist. The last significant show of his work seems to have been in the ‘eighties. There is a nice self portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, but only one oil, Dialectic No 2, 1940, is to be found on the BBC Your Paintings site. In this the rather geometric figures look a bit Wyndham Lewis, even a bit Merlyn Evans. Most other pieces appear much more fluid. Many surviving works are designs for the theatre and ballet, though to my mind these are of lesser interest. He was also a friend of Mervyn Peake.

In The Spirit of Place, Malcolm Yorke quickly disposes of Hurry as “weirdly overwrought and hysterical”. What’s so wrong with that? Once could say the same of (for instance) the once derided but very wonderful Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, who these days have pukka status. And as British surrealists go, I’d rather take one Hurry than any number of those dry, clunky, repressed pastiches of Ernst by the amateurish and ludicrously over-rated Conroy Maddox.