Un­quiet ro­man­tic

A cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tion of the neo-ro­man­tic artist John Min­ton re­veals an ex­tra­or­di­nary range of tal­ent, finds Ari­ane Bankes

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

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

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