First published 2/10/2010 UPDATE 5/7/2013 For addtional information on this topic see this excellent post from the Richard Warren blog in the list opposite.
I’ve recently become interested in the art of Michael Ayrton (1921-1975), painter, sculptor, printmaker, author and radio and television personality,. His Minotaur was once a powerful brooding sculptural presence in Postman’s Park near the Museum of London, where I worked for a while in the 1980s; during my lunch break on sunny days I would sometimes sit in this haven of peace in the City. Iain Sinclair writes about it in his essay ‘Bulls and Bears and Mithraic misalignments: Weather in the City’. Then, some years ago it disappeared - too off-putting for the lunching workers?
While dipping in to Justine Hopkins Michael Ayrton: a Biography (1994) I came across the following passage (p86):
‘Cecil [Gray, composer and music critic] 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.’
Ayrton and Stross were friends, the artist using the potteries as subject matter, in particular an old marl pit near Stross’s house, where he used to stay. Stross [quoted on p89] wrote that it was, ‘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. [Stross] 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…He took Constant Lambert to see it, and Constant was very frightened…he thought no painter could paint such a subject and do it justice.’ The resulting oil painting ‘The Tip, Hanley’, executed in 1946, is in the collections of Stoke-on-Trent Museums; another work ‘The White Country’ painted the previous year is listed in a 1978 catalogue published by the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery as ‘Present whereabouts unknown; formerly in the collection of Sir Barnett Stross MP’.
Sir Barnett Stross does not appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. According to his Times obituary (15 May 1967 p12) he had enjoyed a distinguished career. Born in 1899, he was brought to Britain by his Polish political refugee parents at the end of the First World War. He got a degree in medicine at Leeds and started practice as a GP in the Potteries in 1926 – he became an expert on diseases associated with pottery workers, such as silicosis and warned of the danger of contracting lung cancer from smoking. In 1930 he joined the Labour party and at the 1945 election he was elected MP for Stoke on Trent’s Hanley division.
During the Second World War, the building in which he was giving a lecture for the Ministry of Food received a direct hit and Stross was later pulled out from the rubble seriously injured. He was the founder of the movement which rebuilt Lidice (now in the Czech Republic); the village was destroyed and its population massacred by the Germans in 1942 in reprisal for the murder of Reinhard Heydrich – for this he was honoured by the Czech government.
According to his entry in Wikipedia:
‘Two years after Stross' death, the Czech intelligence defector Josef Frolik named him as having been an agent of Czechoslovakia. According to Frolik, Stross (code-named "Gustav") had provided "interesting information about the domestic and foreign policies of the Labour Party while it was in opposition". Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay's book "Smear! Wilson and the Secret State" [p194] claims that such information as Stross supplied could have been obtained by writing to Transport House (the headquarters of the Labour Party)’.
Apart from the dubious claims that Stross was a Czech agent, I have found no other reference so far to his other secret life as a ‘white wizard’. None of the biographies of Crowley that I have consulted contain Stross’s name in the index. Crowley did frequent the Café Royal, as did Michael Ayrton and Cecil Gray according to the biography quoted above, so it is possible that Stross and Ayrton met him there.
Ayrton was also, according to the Birmingham catalogue quoted above (p11) part of a 'mystical circle' that included, 'Barnet [sic] Stross, Freda Cavell, James Laver and...Margery Livingstone' [another misspelled person who must be Marjorie Livingston,a psychic who apparently wrote books received clairaudiently, one from Apollonius of Tyana]. According to his autobiography Museum Piece (1963, p228), Laver, an art and fashion historian, Keeper of the Dept of Illustration, Engraving and Design at the V & A and author of a biography of Nostradamus, visited Crowley in his Hastings boarding house (he writes about witnessing him injecting heroin) so it is conceivable that other members of the group met the Great Beast, but the Ayrton connection may just be lazy research or wishful thinking. [I knew of Laver from his Whistler biography but I hadn't realised that he also wrote a biography of Huymans entitled The First Decadent]
Such was the notoriety of Crowley during his lifetime that many writers have attempted to spice up their autobiographies and biographies of contemporaries with alleged encounters with the Great Beast. Master of Villainy, the biography of Sax Rohmer written by his wife Elisabeth and Cay van Ash, states that the two met, although again I can find no other independent evidence for this; Rohmer was not a member of the Golden Dawn despite claims in some books to the contrary. Perhaps in the future more will emerge about Sir Barnett Stross, but I am more interested in the fate of ‘The White Country’.
Addendum: On 14th October I did a book signing at Atlantis Books. While I was there I thought I would ask proprietor Geraldine Beskin, an acknowledged authority on AC, about the Stross connection. I showed her a photocopy from the book, but she knew nothing about it - she also thought it was of dubious veracity.
Author of Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London, London's Coffee Houses, Decadent London, The Folklore of London, Subterranean City (Revised and Expanded Edition), Netherwood, Last Resort of Aleister Crowley, Lord of Strange Deaths, the Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer; Secret Tunnels in England, Folklore and Fact