Museum Crush talks to Simon Martin of Pallant House Gallery about the life and art of John Minton, regarded as one of the most talented artists of his generation, but who took his own life in 1957
A painter of evocative wartime landscapes, exotic locations and figurative works and a brilliant maker of book illustrations, posters and lithographs; John Minton (1917 – 1957) might be the quintessentially successful mid-century British artist with a circle of friends that took in everyone from Lucian Freud to Keith Vaughan, but he remains a strangely neglected figure.
The last touring exhibition of his work was in 1994 and to this date there isn’t a single monograph on him. In 1991 Frances Spalding wrote a highly regarded biography, which offered new insights into his life and work, but there’s been virtually nothing since then.
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So the centenary of Minton’s birth offers a timely opportunity to take a closer look at an artist regarded as one of the most talented draughtsmen of his generation and whose work spans Neo-Romantic landscapes, beautiful figurative works, insanely colourful canvasses and even history paintings.
In many ways he is the perfect subject matter for Pallant House Gallery, who have not only nurtured the upswing of interest in the Neo-Romantic artists of the 1940s, but have made it their mission to celebrate overlooked artists of modern British art.
“There are in fact three anniversaries for Minton,” points out Pallant Director Simon Martin, who has co-curated John Minton: A Centenary Exhibition with Frances Spalding. “There’s also the 60th anniversary of his death, which is very poignant because he was only 39 when he died, and of course this year it’s the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.”
Minton features in Tate’s Queer British Art show and in other exhibitions and events marking this important landmark ruling but, says Martin, this exhibition “is the first to look at the whole spectrum of his work and recognise the significance of his sexuality”.
“He did a whole series of pictures of young men in ruins in the East End and Poplar…you sense these paintings are self-portraits.”
Previous exhibitions have often sidestepped that central aspect of Minton – a strange omission given it is such an overt and very important driver of some of his key themes, and anyone familiar with his wartime imagery will know the paintings of young men in escapist landscapes seemingly turning their backs on the war. Minton was a pacifist who, rejected as a conscientious objector, joined the Pioneer Corps, only to be later discharged due to health reasons.
“It’s often been said that this was a form of breakdown related to his sexuality,” says Martin, “and a lot of his imagery from this time is a kind of denial of warfare and a rejection of the usual machismo imagery that you might get in relation to war.
“He did a whole series of pictures of young men in ruins in the East End and Poplar and he wrote about them to friends in private letters – particularly in relation to his own exploits in that part of town. There was definitely an identification for him and you sense these paintings are self-portraits as well.”
A Bohemian and sociable figure in London of the 1940s and 1950s, Minton is part of an increasingly popular period in British art when young painters and printmakers were reading Cyril Connolly’s Horizon Magazine, re-connecting with artists like Samuel Palmer, William Blake and George Richmond and being inspired by people like Graham Sutherland who was making an extraordinary connection to a sense of place and the English landscape.
But Martin also points to the influence of the continental Neo Romanticism of the 1930s – people like the Russians Eugène Berman and Pavel Tchelitchew and the French artist Christian Bérard. And at the end of the 1930s Minton also met Giorgio de Chirico, which resulted in a metaphysical quality coming into his work.
“A couple of pieces from the 1930s have that quality of desolate landscapes,” he says, “you can see these open plains which are quite different from what was emerging in Britain.”
“Minton was always out partying and dancing. Vaughan was happy to sit and listen to records of classical music at home.”
There are however several commonalities with his British peers. He was friends with people like Michael Ayrton who like Minton, was great draughtsman and very aware of art history, and there are some overt similarities with his great friend, Keith Vaughan.
“Although you have this poetic melancholic quality in Minton – like you have in Vaughan’s work, in Minton you get more wit and certainly a lighter touch, particularly in his book illustrations, while Vaughan was a much more dour artist,” says Martin.
“I think this is partly why they remained friends but they had a kind of problematic friendship because Minton was always out partying and dancing. He enjoyed going out – he enjoyed jazz music and popular culture, while Vaughan was happy to sit and listen to records of classical music at home. So there is always this tension between the two of them.”
Minton’s conviviality saw him develop a following of Camberwell School of Art and Royal College of Art students that was known as ‘Johnny’s Circus’, but it was an insular scene. Few of Minton’s circle, with the exception of the war artists John Piper and Graham Sutherland, had been able to travel and really explore the world beyond Britain.
Post war London, still in the grip of the ration book, was a rather grey place and Minton’s opportunity to escape came through the publisher and writer John Layman, who arranged for him to go to Corsica with the poet Alan Ross to work on a book called Time Was Away.
“Going in 1947 from Post war England – bomb damaged London – was essentially like going to a Mediterranean idyll in comparison,” says Martin. “He comes back and you get this sense of heat and light and he subsequently worked on a whole series of brightly coloured paintings.
“In 1945/46 he and many other artists had seen the work of Picasso and Matisse shown at the V&A so that sense of Mediterranean light and colour influences all of them. At the same time Graham Sutherland starts to go to the South of France and John Craxton goes to Crete with Lucian Freud. So there was a real sense of escapism.”
“Having done paintings of orchards in Surrey, what you then have is these acid greens of banana plantations and the lushness of the vegetation”
Minton did a lot of travelling in the Mediterranean, and North Africa. He also illustrated cookery books by Elizabeth David including her Book of Mediterranean Food and French Country Cooking.
“What you have are these images of plenty at a time of rationing in Britain,” says Martin, “for the post war housewife, it was almost impossible to source the ingredients – foods like fresh succulent melons and grapes were not even possible in Britain at that time.”
Little wonder Minton had the travel bug, and in 1951 he went to Jamaica for four months.
“He came back and having done paintings of orchards in Surrey, what you then have is these acid greens of banana plantations and the lushness of the vegetation, and also images of Jamaican men. Minton, as a kind of social outsider himself, felt an affinity with the black communities of Jamaica and wrote about the post-colonial situation. There is a real sensitivity in his work and in the way he depicts people.”
But the new vistas didn’t cure the inner turmoil that increasingly plagued him. Charismatic but also self-destructive he was haunted by self-doubt and his work reflected these complexities.
Wanting to be considered a ‘serious painter’ he began submitting large history paintings with seemingly disprate themes like The Death of Nelson and The Death of James Dean to the Royal Academy at a time when the then RA president, Sir Alfred Munnings, was resisting Modernism and talking about “kicking Picasso up the street”.
At the same time Minton was teaching people like Peter Blake, Joe Tilson, Bridget Riley and Frank Auerbach at the RCA and Gillian Ayres at Camberwell and, despite Munnings’ conservatism, Abstract Expressionism was making inroads into British Art. But at heart Minton was a figurative artist and this new development in British art troubled him. As the fifties wore on he increasingly suffered with psychological problems and drank heavily. He committed suicide in 1957.
“I think he felt he was out of sync with the direction that art was going and that coincided with alcoholism and depression,” says Martin. “We also have to acknowledge the difficulty of being gay before it was legal to be a homosexual. He had a very conflicted sexuality – he fell in love with straight men and he would go after wrestlers and body builders, and in a society that isn’t open that was quite problematic.”
“The final years and the fact that he committed suicide tragically early is an incredibly sad ending,” says Martin, pointing to artists like Keith Vaughan, Christopher Wood, Dora Carrington, and Mark Gertler who met the same end, “but I think you have to be careful of turning his life into a tragic narrative because of how it ended. He is also a figure for social change – as early as 1950 he’s writing to newspapers calling for the recognition of homosexual artists and other figures.”
“You can read someone’s life through how it ended but in the final years he had been incredibly successful as a book designer. He had designed 50 – 60 books jackets through the late forties and early fifties and at that point in time he was often written about as one of the most successful artists of the day. He’s in successful exhibitions, he has his portrait painted by Lucien Freud in the 1950s he was really pushing himself. It’s important to recognise how significant he is as a fine artist.”
An illustrated book by the curators, adding significantly to the critical discourse on John Minton, accompanies the exhibition and is available in the Pallant Bookshop.
The exhibition is complemented by a display of paintings by William Coldstream, who taught during the same period as Minton. An exhibition of John Minton’s friends and contemporaries in the Neo-Romantic movement in the historic townhouse at Pallant House Gallery will provide further context to the narrative of Minton’s life and career.
John Minton: A Centenary is at Pallant House Gallery July 1 – October 1 2017.
Pallant House Gallery
Chichester, West Sussex
Pallant House Gallery is a unique combination of a Grade 1 listed Queen Anne townhouse and an award-winning contemporary extension. It is based in the heart of Chichester and holds one of the best collections of Modern British art in the country. There is an extensive temporary exhibition programme including…