John Minton was a leading illustrator whose works brought vibrant Mediterranean colour to the post-war food books by Elizabeth David.
The artist (1917 – 1957), a Bohemian figure in London during the 1940s and 50s who counted artists such as Lucian Freud and Keith Vaughan in his circle, also created evocative wartime landscapes, including views of London, and was inspired by his travels to Corsica, Jamaica and Spain to create exotic works in a new palette of sharp, acid colours.
Among them was the huge mural painting ‘Jamaican Village’ (1951), which he described as invoking “a sense of watchfulness, of waiting… a disquiet that is potent and nameless”, which was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1951 and resurfaced for the first time in 65 years at a Christie’s sale in 2016.
John Minton, Jamaican Village,
1951, private collection, Photograph © 2016 Christie’s Images Limited/ Bridgeman Images © Royal College of Art
The painting is at the heart of a major exhibition of Minton’s work at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, the first time it has been shown in a public institution since 1951.
The exhibition, co-curated by the gallery’s director Simon Martin and Minton’s biographer Frances Spalding, mark the centenary of his birth and 60 years since the death of Minton, who was gay, and also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.
Exploring the artist’s achievements far beyond his reputation as a leading illustrator and influential teacher at the Royal College of Art, the exhibition opens with his moving depictions of post-war London, which were firmly rooted in the Neo-Romantic tradition and gained him the moniker ‘urban romantic’.
It includes figurative work including portraits of young male students and friends, which express his experience as a leading gay artist in the 1940s and 1950s.
His travels to Europe and the Caribbean in the late 1940s and early 1950s gave him exotic subject matter that led to him producing illustrations for Elizabeth David’s much-revered cookbook A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950, their bright colours an antidote to the reality of post-war Britain.
The exhibition brings together original designs for this and other publications, including Treasure Island, and The Leader magazine, showing how Minton’s commercial work was central to his fine art practice.
“In some works, Minton evoked an atmosphere of poetic melancholy but in others he conveyed its complete opposite: an exuberant joie de vivre.In this respect, his work forms a mirror to his own complex personality.
As Simon Martin explains, “Minton was the life and soul of any party, known for his brilliant sense of humour. He was often to be seen drinking and dancing in the pubs and jazz bars of Soho in the company of artists such as Lucian Freud, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, the poets George Barker and WS Graham, or, more often, with an adoring cohort of his young male students described as Johnny’s Circus. But he could also be introspective and prone to self-doubt.”
John Minton was born in Cambridgeshire and educated at Northcliffe House in Bognor Regis and at Reading School. He studied art at St John’s Wood School of Art, introduced to French neb-romantic painters by fellow student Michael Ayrton.
He was a conscientious objector at the beginning of the Second World War but later changed his mind and joined the Pioneer Corps, only to be discharged on medical grounds. During the war, he and Ayrton designed the costumes and scenery for John Gielgud’s production of Macbeth in 1942. He also taught illustration at the Camberwell College of Arts, later becoming tutor to the painting school at the Royal College of Art.
During the 1950s, he shared a home with contemporaries Jankel Adler, the Polish émigré, Keith Vaughan, Michael Ayrton, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde.
In 1951, a three-month trip to Jamaica presented the artist with a backdrop of political and racial tension, which resulted in the painting ‘Jamaican Village’.
His figurative paintings demonstrate a remarkable skill in draftsmanship, reflecting his roots in illustration in the use of black paint and outlining. He produced sensitive and often psychologically intense portraits of young men, some of them his students, including David Tindle, and some his lovers, such as Raymond Ray, which can be analysed in relation to his own tortured homosexuality. Minton did not keep his sexuality secret, but battled with the stigma and risk attached to being gay at a time before the Wolfenden Report in 1957 and the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967.
In the late 1950s, Minton increasingly felt out of step with the rising interest in abstract art and tried to find a modern form of the increasingly unfashionable genre of history painting, producing paintings depicting historic and current events, including the deaths of Nelson and James Dean. He turned to alcohol and took his own life at the age of 40 in 1957.
Alongside the exhibition is A Different Light: British Neo-Romanticism, featuring works in the collection by Minton’s contemporaries including Jankel Adler, Keith Vaughan, Robert Colquhoun, Robert MacBryde, John Craxton, Prunella Clough, Graham Sutherland and John Piper.
John Minton: A Centenary is at the Pallant House Gallery, North Pallant, Chichester, until October 1. Phone 01243 774557 or visit pallant.org.uk.