Wherever one looked in the arts scene of the 1940s and ’50s, one was likely to encounter the tragicomic figure of John Minton. Whether he was dancing to the trad jazz of his pupil Humphrey Lyttelton — who recalled his style on the floor as ‘formidable and dangerous’ — or drinking at the Colony Room where Francis Bacon once poured champagne over his head, the painter and illustrator was ubiquitous.
Even if he never produced a great picture, Minton deserves the exhibition at Pallant House, Chichester, marking the centenary of his birth, and the fine accompanying book by Frances Spalding and Simon Martin. In its way, failure can be as interesting as success, as well as more poignant.
When asked what was the greatest difficulty he had encountered as an artist, Minton replied, ‘Instant recognition at an early age.’ He was one of a small group of painters, often dubbed neo-romantics, who came to prominence during the war.
Minton’s melancholy views of bombed-out ruins struck a chord in the dark years that followed the Blitz, as did the pastoral scenes in an idiom borrowed from Samuel Palmer that offered refuge in a poetic past. After 1945, his art provided a different sort of escape from dismal post-war Britain. He produced a stream of book illustrations of hot, exotic places: Corsica, Morocco, Jamaica.
Elizabeth David was delighted with the jacket design for her Book of Mediterranean Food, enthusiastically describing its panorama of ‘tables spread with white cloths and bright fruit, bowls of pasta and rice, a lobster, pitchers and jugs and bottles of wine’ and a ‘brilliant blue Mediterranean bay’ beyond. This was a dream of warmth and plenty in an era of rationing.
Perhaps it was too much of a dream (David decided to opt for more earthy illustrations of vegetables for her later Italian Food). There is something sweetly unreal about both Minton’s melancholy ruins and his colourful travelogues. Even so, his illustrations for books and magazines were perhaps the best things he did, though, as Lucian Freud accurately observed, the figures in them ‘have the air of all being of the same boy’.
The apogee of Minton’s short career came in 1950. In June of that year the Daily Express described him as ‘at 32 the Royal College of Art’s youngest teacher, a brilliant exhibitioner in London and New York, and one of our most sought after magazine illustrators’. As an artist he was quite as well known as Bacon and Freud. Just over six years later he was dead, having committed suicide, a desperate and despairing alcoholic, on 20 January 1957.
Minton’s problems were multiple. He was gay at a time when same-sex relationships were subject to what he described, in a brave letter to the Listener, as a ‘vicious law’. Even in an age of heroic drinking he stood out for his frenetic consumption of alcohol. But Minton’s greatest problem, perhaps, was misplaced ambition. His was a brilliant lightweight talent, but he wanted — admirably, but misguidedly — to paint big, serious, important pictures. He attempted a series of these, several of which were exhibited at the Royal Academy. One, slightly absurdly, depicted ‘The Death of Nelson’ (1952); another the dice-players at the foot of the cross. None was remotely able to compete in the age of Pollock, Bacon and Giacometti.
Nonetheless, Minton’s art, personality and fate somehow linger in the mind. Freud, who painted a great portrait of Minton (with enormously greater power than the sitter’s own pictures), knew him well: ‘He was very engaging and witty about being doomed. We’d be sitting in a restaurant and when the waiter arrived he would say, “Could we have a nice bottle of Château Hysteria?”’
His story is a reminder of the importance of stamina in art (as in so much else). One contemporary painter who possesses that quality in abundance is John Virtue, who is celebrating his 70th birthday this month, and whose career has been, in some respects, the opposite of Minton’s. Not instant recognition, but a slow-burning ascent.
Virtue was one of the most promising pupils of Euan Uglow and Frank Auerbach in the late 1960s. But he then gave up painting in despair of achieving the results he aspired to. For a while he worked as a postman in his native Lancashire, then, when he was already in his early thirties, he found a way back into painting. It was a lonely course, marked by the renunciation of all colour — unless, like Matisse (and Virtue), you believe black is a colour too. Virtue’s pictures are executed exclusively in white and black, and grow out of an unremitting discipline: walks through a certain landscape during which he draws, followed by painting in his studio.
Over the past four decades he has worked in five places — high in the Pennines, around a village on Dartmoor where he was then living, on the estuary of the River Exe, and while he was artist in residence at the National Gallery, on the banks of the Thames. In recent years, his subject has been the surging waves on the North Norfolk coast, a subject that encapsulates energy and infinity, everything and nothing. Virtue’s work is still growing in power, but he has produced masterpieces at every point. It is disgraceful that he has not yet been given a big retrospective at a national museum.
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