Michael Ayrton's metaphorical trees, and his roots

The stream, convulsed by an almost oceanic turbulence, surges over the lower reaches of this powerful painting. On the bank, the remains of a tree, rotten and truncated, but somehow a survivor, rears up like a wild monster. This impassioned foreground upstages the stability of the meadows and sculpted hills that can be discovered in the background.

Michael Ayrton (1921-1975) was one of several British artists who, especially during World War II, looked to the native countryside for fierce solace. Ayrton's biographer, Justine Hopkins, writes of his "powerful perception of the forces stirring in the land and its inanimate inhabitants." For Ayrton, she writes, these forces were, potentially, "metamorphosed metaphors of the human condition."

Though he was well aware of the gentle side of the pastoral landscape tradition in British art, Ayrton's landscapes were not simple idylls, a nostalgic escape from the rigors of wartime.

The ferocious energy of "Winter Stream" (painted in 1945) is characteristic of his work in the 1940s.

Above all, at this period, Ayrton had an intensely expressive appreciation of tree form. He shared this characteristic with Graham Sutherland and other (not very accurately labeled) "Neo-Romantics" such as Paul Nash, John Nash, and John Minton.

The convolutions of tree trunks and branches – redolent of the human figure – gave these artists a visual language for their strongest feelings. Ayrton even went so far as to suggest that the artist must identify with natural phenomena to understand form.

"To paint the essentials of a tree," Ayrton wrote, "one must become the tree one is painting...."

A year before completing "Winter Stream," Ayrton had painted his variation on one of the persistent themes of European art based, as it had been for centuries, on the iconography of the Christian narrative. He called that picture simply "Gethsemane" – the garden in which Jesus had prayed in preparation for the crucifixion and resurrection.

But the landscape in which Ayrton placed this scene of human anguish was not Judea, but Wiltshire. Again, a fallen tree dominates the foreground.

Ayrton wrote that the garden "must have reacted to the agony of the vigil. The disciples slept through it, but not the trees."

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