Hayter was born in Hackney, London. Between 1918 and 1921 he read Chemistry and Geology at Kings College in London. In 1926, however, he moved to Paris and opened a printmaking workshop. Hayter’s first one-man show opened the following year at the Galerie Sacre du Printemps. In 1940 he moved to New York and over the next decade opened two branches of his printmaking business, by then known as Atelier 17. One studio in New York and one in Paris. The New York workshop was attended by the likes of Rothko, De Kooning and Jackson Polllock whilst Picasso, Miro, Chagall and Dali all frequently attended the one in Paris.
Hayter learned the art of engraving from the Polish artist Joseph Hecht whilst in Paris and the free-form, unconscious flow of line in his paintings, drawings and prints was undoubtedly influenced by the ideas of the Surrealists, with whom he exhibited during the 1930s. The stirrings of Fascism in Europe and the civil war in Spain account for the recurring signs of terror and aggression that run through this work. Later though his style became progressively more abstract, confirming his name amongst the Abstract Expressionists.
The first major exhibition of Hayter’s work, ‘Hayter and Studio 17’, was mounted at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1944. In 1957 a retrospective exhibition of his work opened at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London. He was awarded an OBE in 1959 and a CBE in 1968.