A centenary celebration of the neo-romantic artist John Minton reveals an extraordinary range of talent, finds Ariane Bankes
The exhibition at Pallant house Gallery devoted to John Minton opens, brilliantly, with Lucian Freud’s 1952 portrait of his friend. Commissioned by Minton himself, but disliked by most of his contemporaries for its anguished gauntness, it nevertheless tellingly conjures up Minton’s haunted inner life as much as his outward appearance. Despite being the life and soul of Soho’s Bohemia and the last one on the dancefloor at every party, Minton (1917–57) already sensed that his figurative idiom would be swept aside by the arrival of Abstraction.
This, and his painful awareness of being an outsider—a pacifist, a homosexual, a ‘romantic’ in a ruthless world—would ultimately lead him to take his own life in 1957 and Freud felt that Minton ‘had commissioned this portrait with his death in mind’. That his suicide was a tragic waste is demonstrated in every room of this illuminating show, staged to mark the centenary of Minton’s birth and the 60th anniversary of his death.
how timely it is: the breadth and range of works, some exhibited for the first time in decades, show Minton to have been an artist of unusual talents. We see him restlessly juggling with style throughout the two decades it covers and boldly experimenting with form
and colour. The show may open and close in a minor key, but it moves into the major as Minton, always a consummate draughtsman, brings to his work the exhilaration of travel and discovery and the
joie de vivre he was celebrated for. Above all, this show demonstrates that he moved well beyond the label ‘neo-romantic’ by which he is often defined. A pacifist and reluctant recruit to the Army during the war, he was clearly motivated by the same escapist and poetic identification with Nature as his contemporaries Graham Sutherland, John Craxton, John Piper and Keith Vaughan, but he arrived at this through other channels and took very different elements away from it.
His wartime landscapes, mainly in pen and ink, are exquisite examples of the pastoral. His terrain folds in and out of itself, knotted with jointed trees and tumbling vegetation and often sheltering a brooding figure reminiscent of visions by Samuel Palmer, but an escape from wartorn London to Cornwall in 1944 set a whole new train of inspiration in motion. Gone was the introspection and nostalgia and he plunged into a vital engagement with labourers in their own elemental landscapes.
The built environment also fascinated him: paintings of the River Thames, with its quays and wharves, and the belching chimneys and wind pumps of St Helen’s in Lancashire earned him the label ‘urban romantic’. Travels to the Mediterranean liberated him and suffused his work with colour:
The Road to Valencia captures the flaring corn and shimmering sky behind the farmer’s cart with exhilarating boldness.
Meanwhile, the publisher John Lehmann had been introduced to Minton by Keith Vaughan and immediately realised his potential as an illustrator. One of his most successful collaborations, with the poet Alan Ross, was for
Time was Away, A Notebook in Corsica and the intricate drawings he made there evolved into glorious paintings ablaze with heat and colour.
Minton’s travels would also inspire his voluptuous illustrations for Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food and French Country Cooking. Unfortunately, they were so voluptuous in an age of postwar austerity that David looked elsewhere for a more realistic artist for later volumes.
Subsequent travels in Jamaica gave rise to some of his best and boldest works: the stark simplicity of three figures raking seaweed; the mural-sized Jamaican Village moodily evoking the languid watching and waiting of small-town night-time Caribbean life. The latter acts as a prelude to the grand narrative paintings in the final gallery: reworkings of set pieces such as the death of Nelson, soldiers playing dice at the foot of the Crucifixion and the final, mysterious Composition: Death of James Dean, which was found on his easel unfinished at his death.
However, those large, ambitious works in some ways detract from the more intimate aspect of Minton’s talent, displayed in the series of portraits that precede them. These tender portrayals of friends and lovers give an insight into the perplexity that he suffered as man and artist and that contributed to his ultimate despair.
‘John Minton: A Centenary’ is at Pallant House Gallery, 9, North Pallant, Chichester, West Sussex, until October 1 (01243 774557; www.pallant.org.uk) Next week: 460 years of gardening at Boughton
Top: Jamaican Village (1951) evokes the languid pace of a Caribbean evening. Above: Melon Sellers, Corsica (1948) was painted after a trip to the island with the poet Alan Ross
Minton’s portrait of the art critic Neville Wallis, who championed the work of Minton, Freud and others
An illustration by Minton from Alan Ross’s Time was Away