Monday, 24 July 2017

John Minton: A Centenary

John Deakin - Portrait of John Minton, Soho

On yet another glorious sunny day - which we appear to have been particularly blessed with this summer - I made my way to Chichester's Pallant House Gallery to see John Minton: A Centenary - an exhibition marking one hundred years since the artists birth. I have long been an admirer of Minton's work, having been introduced to it by my tutor as an undergraduate student of graphic design and illustration. The influence of Minton's work stood me in very good stead in my early years as a practicing illustrator, and it is really heartening to see a new appraisal of his work in the current appreciation and revival of the work of mid-century British artists such as Bawden, Ravilious et al.

Lucian Freud - Portrait of John Minton, (1952)

Minton (1917-1957), garnered attention early on in his career after the war by designing costumes and stage sets with Michael Ayrton, and teaching at both Camberwell College of Art and Central School of Art & Design. He would later teach in the painting school at the Royal College of Art. He was prolific as an artist and had eight one man shows mainly at the Lefevre Gallery between 1945 and 1956. As well as his painting, Minton provided numerous illustrations for books and book jackets, magazines and poster designs. And it is for his graphic work such as the illustrations for Elizabeth David's A Book of Mediterranean Food, and posters for London Underground and Ealing Studios that he is probably best remembered today. 

Minton was part of the circle of artists that frequented Soho which included Freud and Bacon. He shared studios with the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde, and also later with Keith Vaughn. Although Minton's work was extremely popular in the 1950s he became plagued with doubts when the fashion for abstract expressionism emerged, and his work began to be overshadowed by that of Freud and Bacon. Rather than hold his ground like other figurative artists, Minton lost faith in his work which led sadly, to a downward mental and emotional spiral culminating in his demise by his own hand. 

Figure In Ruins, (1941)

The exhibition starts with Minton's tonally dark wartime works. Minton's landscape drawings of this time were seen as an escape from the rigours of life in wartime, and the picture above depicting a ragged, melancholic young man, illustrates Minton's isolation and conflicted sexuality. Other images from this period link Minton to older neo-romantic artist such as John Piper and Graham Sutherland who were in turn influenced by the visionary landscapes of Blake and Samuel Palmer. The textures and mark-making of Minton's work led to many commercial and artistic commissions and was much imitated by other artists and illustrators at the time. Given how illustrative much of Minton's artistic work is, it is strange to think that he was a much more popular artist at that time than Bacon and Freud, both of who's work now outstrips his in terms of art market desirability.

The Hop Pickers, (1945)

Summer Landscape, (1943)

Surrey Landscape, (1944)

Apple Orchard, Kent - Lyons lithograph (1951)

The paintings in the middle section of the exhibition were my personal favourites, in  which Minton plays with distorting forms and shapes, and infuses his work with the saturated colours experienced on visits to both Corsica and Jamaica. This section of the exhibition features the painting Jamaican Village which is more than 11 feet wide and had not been seen in public since 1951 until it was put up for auction at Christie's last November where it realised a sale price of £293,000. You can almost feel the equatorial heat from this series of paintings, and the change of scenery appears to have really given new life and fresh impetus to Minton's painted work.

Children By The Sea, (1945)

Rotherhithe From Wapping, (1946)

Bridge From Cannon Street Station, (1946)

A Painted Table for John Lehmann (1950)

Melon Sellers Corsica, (1948)

Jamaican Village, (1951)

Tropical Fruits, (1951)

The last section of the exhibition below, focuses on Minton's portraiture, book-jacket design, and his later large historical canvases. The book jackets are really good pieces of design. The portraits display good technical and observational skills, but could have done with a greater variation in the pose of the sitters to give more psychological insight into both the subjects, and clues to Minton's relationship to them. I did a double-take with the Portrait of Neville Wallis, as stylistically it could so easily have been a painting by the great American illustrator Norman Rockwell. I wasn't particularly keen on the large historical canvases that closed the exhibition, apart from The Death of Nelson. I believe that the works in this last section of the exhibition betray Minton's crisis of confidence in his work, and his unease in the face of the increasing fashion for abstract art which he disliked. I would not have displayed these large historical paintings chronologically, but would have ended the exhibition on a high with the Jamaican and Corsican paintings, when Minton was at the height of his powers, had a clear purpose, and was actually enjoying the act of painting without the crippling effects of self-doubt in the face of the rise of abstract expressionism. This a small gripe though as it is still a wonderful exhibition.

Horseguards In Their Dressing Rooms at Whitehall, (1953)

The Rat Race, (1955)

 Portrait of Neville Wallis, (1952)

Self-Portrait, (c1953)

Portrait of Raymond Ray, (1954)

Portrait of Kevin Maybury, (1956)

The Death Of Nelson After Daniel Maclise, (1952)

John Minton: A Centenary is great and timely retrospective and makes for a very good day out in Chichester. Also on show at Pallant House complementing the Minton show is - Lucian Freud: Early Works, and - A Different Light: British Neo-Romanticism, featuring work by Piper, Nash, Sutherland, Colquhoun, MacBryde, Craxton and Clough.

John Minton: A Centenary
until 1st October
Pallant House Gallery
9 North Pallant
West Sussex