John Minton’s work belongs to the precise moment when Britain made the mental step out of post-war gloom and into something sunnier. By turns strange, disconcerting, angular and playful, the artist who created it became a casualty of his time. Feeling that he had been eclipsed by American abstract expressionism and, as a gay man, made an outcast by British society, he took his own life aged just 39. What a tragedy that was for British art and illustration was not apparent at the time, but is the subtext to an exhibition of his selected work at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.
The exhibition finally brings Minton’s work to a wider audience, with paintings and some examples of the illustrative work that made his name in the 40s and 50s, arguably at the cost of his artistic credibility. While contemporaries and sometimes associates such as Francis Bacon went on to greater things and quietly forgot their earlier, commercial work, no such indulgence was possible for Minton. He was already famous for a series of innovative book covers and illustrations, especially for Elizabeth David’s first cookery books, and found that he was trapped by the fame he had worked hard to achieve.
‘He had graduated from art school at an interesting time,’ explains Frances Spalding, the co-curator of Minton’s biographer. ‘It was the 30s and international modernism was at its height. To be avant-garde was to be on the side of intellectual and political freedom, a tremendously positive and spirited response to the muddle and mess around them. And yet John Minton’s work shows no sign of that. Then he was introduced to a book called After Picasso by a fellow student, Michael Ayrton, and everything changed.’
In it, author James Thrall Soby argued that the most significant art was being done not by Picasso himself but as a response to him, and drew his reader’s attention to the work of the French Neo-Romantics. ‘They were exploring a much more Freudian world of desire, passion, sexuality and the work of the unconscious mind,’ Frances continues. ‘They were melancholy and uncertain, and as one of Minton’s friends told me, it hit them like a blow to the stomach. He travelled to France with Ayrton, and then he starts producing these overwrought drawings of adolescent figures wandering the streets of desolate cities, years before a bomb had ever dropped on London.’
Two such paintings, tactfully described by Frances as “rather dramatic and stagy” appear on the outside of the entrance to the exhibition, as if warning the casual visitor that what they are about to see may be unsettling. They represent a young Minton working out his style and his preoccupations, laid more bare after you pass through the doors and see the naked young man in a barren foreground with shadowy figures on a strange, stunted architectural folly in the background. It seems like a strange working out of sexual fear or desire, but circumstance was about to catch up with Minton.
The desolate, Freudian cities painted before the war became prophetic as London was bombed and the Thames docks, which exerted a strange fascination for Minton, perhaps because of the brawny young men who worked there, took on the texture of his paintings. One canvas, too imaginative to be entirely real, and yet also too real to be entirely a work of his imagination, presents a stunning vista, with a swirling, turbulent river and ruined or otherwise destroyed buildings flanking it. These are haunting scenes, all the more so for being rendered in a restrained monochrome. They do not need to labour to shock because the content is devastating in itself.
Minton tried to have a productive war, recanting his decision to register as a conscientious objector at the same time as he was called up for military service. He joined the Pioneer Corps in 1941 and then transferred to the infantry, a strange decision for someone who had previously been a pacifist, but he turned out to be temperamentally unsuited for the task he had set himself. He appears to have had some kind of breakdown and, after speaking to Army psychiatrists, was discharged in 1943. The legacy of this period is that Minton read an essay published in Horizon magazine, called The Welsh Sketchbook. The essay had been written by Graham Sutherland, an artist with a similarly romantic bent.
‘Sutherland articulated a much more emotional response to the landscape than had been current before,’ Frances explains. ‘Minton seems to have swallowed that argument whole and felt that
he too could convey an emotional truth through the way he approached each landscape.’
One of the paintings, simply entitled Summer Landscape and dated to 1943, the year of his discharge from the Army, bears out the truth of this, with the foreground a riot of colour and confused natural shapes and, in a way that his later work on book covers would suggest was a characteristic Minton touch, a figure off to the left, seemingly overwrought by the profusion of it all. Another landscape, titled Deserted Garrison, painted in 1947 is different again in technique but the same in mood, showing white, three-storey buildings under a dark sky, a broken, oddly phallic column in the foreground.
The end of the war brought about a radical change in the direction of Minton’s career, due initially to publisher John Lehmann, formerly of the Hogarth Press but, for a brief period of time, the head of his own publishing company. It was an association that would provide Minton with a new outlet or fit him into a creative straitjacket, depending on your point of view. For Professor Martin Salisbury, an enthusiastic collector of Minton’s work and a book illustrator, it is the former.
‘Lehmann had an unsurpassed ability to put together great writers with great artists,’ he told an audience who had assembled at the Pallant House Gallery in July to hear him talk about Minton’s commercial work. ‘There was a huge degree of crossover between his art and the kind of commissions he took on, which is why the book The Wanderer by Alain-Fournier, in many ways the ultimate romantic novel, was interesting to him and why he travelled to Corsica with the writer Alan Ross.’
The trip to Corsica resulted in the book, Time Was Away, also on display in the exhibition and a remarkable creative tour de force by both protagonists. For Ross, it was about evoking a sense of place through his text, and making the reader feel that he was a visitor in a strange and uncertain country which lived by different laws to sad, tired and grey post-war Britain, while for Minton it was an opportunity to do the same, albeit through his drawings. It yielded 80 to 90 drawings and the raw materials of what would become eight full colour spreads, every bit as evocative as Ross’ impressionistic approach to Corsica.
Ross would later write: ‘It was rugged travel; the hotels where we stayed were basic and often dirty. We lived on bread, cheese, figs, Pastis and wine. The bus journeys were slow and suffocating, with long stops for no particular reason. One day we would be languishing in the humid heat of an estuary, the next exhilarated by sweet mountain air, waking to forests and mountains,’ and all of it is in Minton’s drawings, etched in strange, spidery shapes with scratchy lines and a deliberately wayward sense of perspective, walking a line between figurative and imaginative which places it emphatically in the long tradition of English illustration and yet also in a very particular time.
His relationship with Lehmann also led on to work with cookery writer Elizabeth David and another decisive break to the tired post-war world. How much David’s books made middle class England walk into the kitchen and try to do something adventurous with a lobster rather than having a Sunday roast is debatable, but the cultural impact of being able to read about a world of delicious food in a country still struggling with rationing was seismic. Rachel Cooke, a Guardian writer, observed a few years ago that ‘…the British middle classes, exhausted by austerity, were longing, even if they did not precisely know it, for the taste of sunshine,’ and so it was, but Minton’s work proved to be central to making that come alive.
Instead of straightforwardly reproducing David’s dishes, Minton took a more oblique approach, illustrating evocative scenes in which food was a fundamental but not the only part. There are sailors, and harbours and restaurants, woven into tableaux and subtle little stories. He borrowed David’s culinary implements to illustrate the scenes more accurately, but these are emphatically not photorealistic, with Minton using selective flattened perspective again to illustrate the profusion on the table, which would itself have been remarkable in the parsimonious post-war world, while allowing him to illustrate the scene beyond it, perhaps a restaurant or a table in front of a window. These were not so much illustrations as, in Professor Salisbury’s phrase, a ‘poetic accompaniment’.
Minton found himself caught up in an accelerating world of commercial commissions which was taking him away from his painting and from his previously close connection to what was happening within it. ‘He lost control over the direction that his painting was going,’ says Frances, simply, ‘and complained that exciting things were taking place that he wasn’t able to participate in, but by that stage his work was being seen by a huge audience. Illustrative content was important and he participated in that.’
More seriously, his lifestyle was running counter to any stability. Witty and charismatic, he was surrounded by attractive and, more importantly, heterosexual young men who were largely out of reach. Those who did become his lovers do not seem to have stayed around and he was notoriously intolerant of flamboyantly camp men, which in the years before the Wolfenden Report led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality would have made finding a relationship hard. The men became known as ‘Johnny’s Circus’, and one striking story has a taxi with Minton and his favourites in streaking through the Soho night with Minton himself hanging out of the window and shouting ‘We’re spending your money, darlings,’ at DH Evans department store, who were paying his family a bequest. From the outside, this is another story of the hard-drinking Soho culture of the 50s, but on the inside, he was falling apart.
Lucien Freud painted Minton, capturing him as a nervous, pained individual in a portrait which was detested by his friends, and even spat at by one of them, but it captured an increasingly tortured inner life. At the height of his commercial success, he craved acceptance by the mainstream art world, coming close to it by tracking at the Royal College of Art, but never quite earning admission to its inner sanctum. ‘He hoped to be made an Associate of the Royal Academy, which usually led on to becoming a Royal Academician,’ Frances says. ‘On the day that they voted
for what associates should be made, he sat by the phone in the Royal College of Art common room hoping that a phone call would come through and it never did. He’d
been such a rebel, and he was such an invigorating, challenging figure, that to find him reduced to that is so sad.’
Worse was to come. When American abstract expressionism arrived in the country, his students felt invigorated by it. Minton was baffled. ‘The scale of these paintings was huge and they were so vigorous,’ Frances adds. ‘They came from the stomach rather than the head or the heart, which was the opposite of Minton, and they made British art seem genteel and amateur and faint hearted, so the students went back to the studios in the Royal College where Minton taught and put the canvas on the floor and began bicycling over it, setting fire to it and doing anything that made a break with the past.’
Feeling that he was the past, Minton took an overdose of sleeping pills and died alone, aged 39. One canvas stood in his studio, uncompleted, showing the aftermath of a car accident he had witnessed in Spain and possibly erroneously said to be about the death of James Dean instead. That painting stands in the exhibition as well, with a profile portrait of Minton himself, perhaps, in the words of Frances, ‘predicting his own death.’ That it was a tragedy and that the scale of the tragedy is communicated in full is a testament to Pallant House Gallery and a uniquely memorable, haunting exhibition.
An artist who created some of the most hauntingly evocative illustrations died by his own hand at 39. An exhibition by the Pallant House Gallery has resurrected his reputation.