Michael Ayrton and John Minton met in Paris in 1938, and from then on formed a close friendship. Minton later recalled in a letter to Ayrton, 'I was attracted by your way of life, your conversation and all the exciting and interesting world of painters and painting you showed me' (in a letter dated 21 March 1943, see F. Spalding, John Minton Dance Till the Stars Come Down, Aldershot, 2005, p. 25). They agreed that on leaving art school they would return to Paris, and in April 1939 Ayrton joined Minton there, where they worked in adjoining studios in Montparnasse. When they returned to London later that year, Minton moved in with Michael Ayrton and his family. However their friendship showed signs of strain, and Frances Spalding describes their very different personalities: 'Both were ambitious, but Minton lacked Ayrton's worldly cunning and willingness to use contacts to further his career. There was in addition little malice in Minton's generous nature whereas Ayrton took a peverse delight in flooring people' (ibid, p. 36).
In 1941 Ayrton painted two portraits of Minton: the present work and a smaller panel (private collection) showing only his head (the latter was exhibited in A Pardise Lost The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, at Barbican Art Gallery, London in 1987, no. 7). Both portraits capture Minton's distinctive features and character: his 'gangling body and 'El Greco' face, his wild swings from elation to depression' (M. Yorke, The Spirit of Place, London, 1988, p. 184). Ayrton captures his friend's introverted personality in both portraits, but the present work in particular shows him in a moment of private contemplation that is poignant and touching.