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TWO

MODERN BRITISH PAINTINGS


Clifford Hall (1901-1973), Red Settee, Oil on Board, 1953
Michael Ayrton (1921-1975), Poros, Greece, Oil on Board, 1957


British art of the mid-1950s necessarily reflected the transitions experienced by
artists and society. The second of the two World Wars was a decade behind. The
threat of the Soviet Union remained sharply in public focus. The loss of old
certainties and the instability of the new social framework opened eyes and
troubled minds. The New World had taken over leadership in the visual arts,
with abstract expressionism leading the charge.

Each of the two works examined here is by an artist well regarded by his
contemporaries, who then fell out of favour, as the tide of modern painting left
his preference for figurative work stranded on the sandbank of the past.

In one sense, their choice of how to change was reflected in the failure of each
artist in contemporary terms. Yet to set that choice in the context of individual
artistic development and the nature of their times is not without interest.

CLIFFORD HALL (1901-1973), the older
artist, suffered a continuously
difficult life as he moved away from
the influence of Sickert (who taught
him in the 1920s at the RA Schools
where he won the Landseer prize)
despite enjoying shows at
respectable galleries1 during the
1930s; established himself post
WWII with Roland, Browse and
Delbanco before falling out with
Lilian Browse; and mutated in the
1960s to produce his signature late
works - women anonymised and
isolated behind towels or cloths, or
with their heads turned away from
the viewer.

Michael Ayrton was very different.
The precocious son of an MP and a
physicist, he mixed with the artistic
and intellectual pre-war elite and developed a high degree of self-assurance,
appearing on the BBC’s Brains Trust, and laying claim to being an artistic

1 Beaux Arts (1935); St Martin's (1929); Leger (1932, 1938, 1941)

2 http://www.grantwatersfineart.co.uk/InTheBedroom.html
3 https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/clifford-hall-1904-1973-portrait-of-hanna-5645864-details.aspx
4 Ayrton, quoted in Richard Branson’s Student magazine, Vol.1 No.1, 1968: “[Art] serves as a process or

celebration - which is a very important part of society’s recognition of the splendours of the world it inhabits.
polymath – painting, theatre design, printmaking, criticism, radio programmes –
all these were his domain, which tended to annoy the establishment. His early
work had the spikiness that became associated with Herbert Read’s “Geometry of
Fear”, but trips to the Mediterranean – to Italy and Greece - transformed his way
of seeing the world, and led him to an obsession with the myths surrounding
Daedalus and the minotaur, which in turn led him on a journey from English neo-
romanticism, through classically-inspired painting and into a world of myth-
derived sculpture.

Each of the paintings - Michael Ayrton’s Poros, Greece (Oil on Board, 1957) and
Clifford Hall’s Red Settee (Oil on Board, 1953) – represents an inflexion point for
the artist, after which his work will evolve in a radically different direction, while
in each painting one still senses the echoes of his past, with the influence of the
country’s history also resonant.

Red Settee is not dated, but we know from an
almost identical pencil study marked 9-11-1953,
that the painting must have been completed
around then. Each of its subject, structure, the
palette and the technique tells us of the past and
the future.

Clifford Hall’s early work has been compared to
Sickert, and like Sickert his subject-matter
comprised street scenes and interiors, including
in later years images of decadence and
prostitutes. However, Red Settee moves us into an
interior that is domestic – according to Grant
Waters,2 talking of Hall’s painting of Hanna Weil,
‘Nude on a Sofa’: “The artist's son, Mr Geraint Richard Hall, has advised us that
when the picture was painted the chaise longue sofa would have been in the
artist's large studio room at 8, Trafalgar
Studios, Manresa Road, Chelsea, London SW3.”

Though the line of the
sofa-back is the same,
the sitter does not this
time appear to be his
friend Hannah Weil,3
but is nonetheless
treated respectfully.
And it is noticeable that
while Hall’s technique remains semi-impressionistic,
and is reminiscent of Sickert in brushwork, the palette
has moved far from the dark colours of his earlier years,
managing to be simultaneously energetic, cool and
harmonious, with more than a hint of expressionism in
2 http://www.grantwatersfineart.co.uk/InTheBedroom.html
3 https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/clifford-hall-1904-1973-portrait-of-hanna-5645864-details.aspx
its refusal to be realistic, and its preference for emotion over literal
representation. In addition, each part of the painting occupies a clearly defined
colour-coded space. The ambiguities, the ‘floue’, watery quality of the
impressionistic elements of his earlier paintings have been replaced by
complementary tonal zones that could be considered an abstract work, once
detached from their representational form. This treatment was also visible in his
early 1950s Seated Nude depicting a figure on the same sofa, face turned down
and his 1952 painting Figure Draped in Purple which is almost Japanese in its flat,
collage-like treatment of the subject.

If Red Settee shows that Hall has escaped from the seediness of the past, that he
may for a time embrace a lighter, more positive outlook (he divorced his first
wife Marion Zass in 1952) and that his style has become leaner but more
psychologically interesting, it also shows many features that foreshadow his
‘Bathers’, the hooded women he depicted through the 1960s, their faces often
hidden from the viewer.

In Red Settee, the subject is presented with the sofa wrapped around her, partly
turned away - quite different from the directness of the Hannah Weil portrait. In
addition, while the palette is brighter, the coolness of the sitter’s body, rendered
in mint green, a distinct contrast with the warmth of the sofa’s red and coral
tones, speaks of her isolation. Even the slightly acid chrome yellow of the book
behind her offers an energy
the passivity of her pose
denies. Only the red, thin,
compressed lips and nipple
echo the warmth of the sofa.
And behind her the table is
cloaked in a grey cloth, that
seems to presage the time
when the face of the sitter will
be turned completely away or
hidden in the folds of a towel,
as in Bathers (1967, Pencil and
oil on Board).

MICHAEL AYRTON, as previously discussed, was a far more confident and complex
artist than Clifford Hall, but like him ended up regarded by the critics somewhat
as Henry Moore had described him: a significant eccentric, rather than a heavy
hitter in the art world. And like him, the change-over in his world can be seen in
the subject, structure, palette and technique of the single painting: Poros, Greece.




This painting combines English Neo-Romanticism with Attic subject-matter,


hints of European and British experimentation with social and psychological
themes, and suggests Ayrton’s own exploration of myth to come.

Its composition is unusual for
Ayrton, whose early, Neo-
Romantic and later
Renaissance-influenced
works, such as ‘Sudden
Shower’ (1948) favoured an
open treatment of landscape,
drawing the viewer in, and
presenting their human
subject-matter in
declamatory, even theatrical
pose. In Poros, Greece, the
figures avoid the viewer. A
wall blocks off the
foreground from the background. Behind are hints of the English landscape as
treated by Ayrton in the 1940s. In the foreground, the lighter grasses and urns
suggest the Mediterranean, as does the cloaked figure, while simultaneously
reminding us both of Corot’s gleaners (the poverty of life on a difficult land) and
Bacon’s sinister treatment of gardens and delimited spaces in his pre-
‘Crucifixion’ works ‘Figure Study I and Figure Study II.

Ayrton’s 1945 painting
‘Entrance to a Wood’
combines similar feelings of
confusion and the sinister,
though it offers light in the
distance behind the broken
branch and the thorn-like
broken branches,
reminiscent, doubtless
deliberately, of the various
treatments of the
Crucifixion by Ayrton and
Sutherland: such was the
world in 1945.

But unlike his earlier Renaissance-inspired paintings of fishermen and farmers,
which started with his visits to Italy from 1946, and caught his subjects’
simplicity of daily life through a simplicity of painted form and background,
while not neglecting the complexity of the inner, psychological life and its
interaction with the fates, by 1957 he seems to have reverted to the language of
English Neo-romanticism, most evident in the brushwork and colouration, here
suggesting profusion and confusion combined with a strange and slightly sinister
darkness lurking behind; the opposite of the hard, empty, bright spaces within
works like Sudden Shower.

This return to the themes of the past also links Ayrton’s Poros, Greece to earlier
work by Francis Bacon, dating to 1935: Figure in a Garden. In Bacon, the hints of
cruelty are more express.
The sinister remains
concealed behind a wall, but
can be sensed in the dark
impermeabilty of that wall,
the kind of wall that our
childish memories feared.
Other elements of Ayrton’s
work in 1957 time seem also
to have been influenced by
stylistic aspects of Bacon’s
oeuvre – notably the framing
devices that Bacon deployed
to such effect, and which
Ayrton used in a variety of
self-portraits.

In choice of subject-matter, a scene on the island of Poros, Greece in 1957
reflected Ayrton’s suddenly nascent fascination with Greece and Greek myths,
nurtured by his visits to Cumae, which began in 1956. But behind the splashes,
with the implied wildness of nature, this composition unites the social awareness
of Corot, Ayrton’s own Neo-Romantic sensibility and Bacon’s sinister qualities.

Ayrton in due course came to admire Bacon,
and noted how his work could ‘serve as a
process of exorcism’4 Ayrton had on the
other hand severely criticised both Picasso
and an assortment of his contemporary
British fellow-artists for elements of
pastiche. Ironically, one can hardly avoid
seeing, in the caging of the rearmost figure
behind the wall, and the uncertainty
introduced by the lack of centrality in the
placing and orientation of both human
figures, so different from his treatment of
people in his ‘Italian’ works, the influence of
Bacon’s ‘Figure Study I and Figure Study II.

Ayrton’s foregrounded figure hints in its hardness and indifference at the
interest he was to take in female prophetesses such as the Cumaean Sybil (also
painted in 1957) and Demeter, who presided over the cycles of life and death. We
can note that in parallel, the evolution of Bacon’s painting to produce his 1944
Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion referred in the artist’s mind
to the Eumenides - or Furies - Greek spirits that wreaked vengeance for the Gods.

Ayrton painted less and sculpted more after his experiences of and at Cumae, and
then mostly pale, open landscapes, often in watercolour or ink wash.

So for both Michael Ayrton and Clifford Hall, discovering the new – for Ayrton a
place, for Hall a perception of human relations – led in a short space of time to
the transformation of their artistic language. For Ayrton his move into sculpture
and his obsession with Greek myth, for Hall his embrace of the isolated female
figure as a symbol of man’s indifference to man and the separation of the sexes.

These two small works encapsulate two distinct shifts in artistic outlook: one (in
a self-aware rebellion against the trends of art history) an attempt to make myth
incarnate in bronze; the other (in surrender to subjective social reality) a
decision to express in paint the existential anomie the artist felt fate and society
had imposed indifferently on all, but on him especially.

Paul Serfaty, Hong Kong, December 2018

4Ayrton, quoted in Richard Branson’s Student magazine, Vol.1 No.1, 1968: “[Art] serves as a process or
celebration - which is a very important part of society’s recognition of the splendours of the world it inhabits.
Contrary to this it also serves as process of exorcism, which is a way of bringing out the things which society fears
and dislikes - Francis Bacon does this.“ see https://www.virgin.com/entrepreneur/michael-ayrton-art-celebration-
and-exorcism last accessed 18 December, 2018