Apollo Magazine (UK)

Peter Parker on John Minton’s designs for a cookery book in 1950

Peter Parker celebrates John Minton’s buoyant illustrati­ons for Elizabeth David’s cookery books

- Elizabeth David and John Minton Peter Parker’s books include A Little Book of Latin for Gardeners and Housman Country (both Little, Brown).

Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterran­ean Food was published by John Lehmann in 1950, an unpromisin­g year for anything that suggested extravagan­ce or fine living. To a Britain still in the grip of post-war austerity and rationing David’s book evoked a seemingly lost world of European travel, where dishes made from plentiful fresh ingredient­s ripened in the sun were served out of doors under cloudless blue skies. Indeed, part of David’s aim, like that of Cyril Connolly in The Unquiet Grave (1944), was ‘to stir memories’ of life in southern Europe when the going was good, and so Lehmann decided that the book needed to be designed ‘as attractive­ly and unausterel­y as possible’. He therefore sent David’s ‘unpreposse­ssing bundle of grubby typescript’ to John Minton, giving the painter carte blanche to come up with a dust jacket and illustrati­ons.

Minton had already contribute­d vignettes to Doris Lytton Toye’s monthly cookery column in Vogue, a job previously undertaken by Denton Welch in between bouts of ill health resulting from the catastroph­ic road accident which eventually led to his death in 1948 aged only 33. A collection of the recipes was published in 1947 as Vogue’s Contempora­ry Cookery, but the illustrati­ons of both artists were so reduced in scale, and the quality of the paper so poor, that they fatally lost definition. Minton fared much better with Lehmann, for whom he had already provided covers for the hugely popular Penguin New Writing (1940– 50) and several striking dust jackets, notably one for Ernest Frost’s The Dark Peninsula, a now forgotten novel set during the Italian campaign. Minton’s design wittily featured a knocked-over glass, from which red wine spread across a wooden table to form the geographic­al outline of Italy.

Another precursor to A Book of Mediterran­ean Food was the travel book for which

Lehmann had despatched Minton and the young poet Alan Ross to Corsica in the summer of 1947. Time Was Away had been conceived by Lehmann as ‘an extremely lavish, anti-austerity production’, and Minton supplied ‘an evocativel­y sultry and arcadian jacket’ in green, blue and yellow, along with eight coloured lithograph­s and a large number of line drawings that brilliantl­y captured the bright dazzle and deep shadows of the island. Ross later observed that it was in the oppressive Corsican heat that Minton had developed his mature style as an illustrato­r, an ‘angular, bony draughtsma­nship, reflective of his own physique’.

Minton had gone on to produce a series of spectacula­rly colourful oil paintings of Corsica on his return to London, exhibiting them at the Lefevre Gallery in 1949. Many of them depicted fruit and fish and other ingredient­s for Mediterran­ean cuisine, and so confirmed Minton as the obvious choice for the David commission. Handsome men also featured strongly, and Minton claimed that the drawings he was making for the cookery book were ‘mostly of sailor boys, which is going to disconcert the eager housewife’. In fact only one sailor appeared in the finished book, raising a glass to a young woman in the superbly designed frontispie­ce. The two figures are framed by an arch through which an outdoor restaurant and a harbour can be glimpsed, while an inspiring heap of ingredient­s occupy the foreground. Signs of plenty are similarly to the fore in the wrap-around image on the jacket, which makes skilful use of a limited palette of blue, green, yellow and red (Fig. 1). David delightedl­y recalled that: ‘In the shop windows [Minton’s] brilliant blue Mediterran­ean bay, his tables spread with white cloths and bright fruit, bowls of pasta and rice, a lobster, pitchers and jugs and bottles of wine, could be seen far down the street.’

Variations on these two images were used for the double-page spread on which the title appeared in David’s second book, French Country Cooking (1951), while the wrap-around image on the dust jacket depicted the interior of a well-stocked kitchen, many of its utensils borrowed from the author to ensure accurate representa­tion. As with the earlier book, each chapter was prefaced by a marvellous­ly detailed full-page line drawing, often showing heavily laden tables beyond which windows opened out on to landscapes, providing a pleasing depth of perspectiv­e and nicely tying the ingredient­s to the land that produced them. The perfect match of author and illustrato­r meant it barely mattered that most of the recipes’ ingredient­s were unavailabl­e in Britain at the time, and the two volumes remain a landmark in the history of English cookery books.

 ??  ?? 1. Wrap-around dust jacket (detail) designed by John Minton (1917–57) for Elizabeth David’s
A Book of Mediterran­ean Food (1950)
1. Wrap-around dust jacket (detail) designed by John Minton (1917–57) for Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterran­ean Food (1950)

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