THE story of modern British art is almost inextricably entwined with the two World Wars in which most of its leading names served as combatants or war artists, but Michael Ayrton was the odd man out. Within weeks of his call-up in 1941, the young RAF recruit was writing home in despair: ‘I think they are going to try and train me… and I think they are going to take my stick away from me. It will all do no good, but what can I do?’
Ayrton had had a slight limp since contracting osteomyelitis in childhood and stylish walking sticks were part of his persona. Plagued by ill health throughout his life, he was plainly not army material and—although suspected by the medical officer of having ‘definite reasons for desiring to be unfit for service’—he was eventually discharged.
One of Ayrton’s ‘definite reasons’ was that he was itching to get on with an exciting commission to design sets for a production of Macbeth directed by John Gielgud; another was his awareness that he was essentially untrainable. His dogged independence of mind had made him almost as unsuited to art school as to the army; what he learned about drawing, he basically taught himself in his teens by copying early German Renaissance masters in the Albertina when staying with an elderly cousin in Vienna.
Ayrton’s dogged independence of mind made him almost as unsuited to art school as to the army
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