John Minton: A Centenary

A major exhibition marking the centenary of the birth of British artist John Minton (1917–1957) has opened at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. Here the exhibition’s co-curator and author of the definitive biography of John Minton, Frances Spalding, introduces the artist’s extraordinary life and work.


John Minton, Jamaican Village, 1951, at Pallant House Gallery

In the course of John Minton’s short career, he was frequently mentioned in the press. In June 1950 he joined the Painting School at the RCA. 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’. The charisma he exuded is impossible to exaggerate, for his liveliness, wit, humour, charm and good looks lit up any room the moment he entered it. With hindsight he has been called the David Hockney of his day. But it is some twenty-five year since a major exhibition of his work has been seen, and so the opportunity to co-curate an exhibition at Pallant House, Chichester, with Simon Martin, came as a most welcome opportunity. It opened on the 1st July and runs until the 1st October 2017.

Inevitably, while pursuing new lines of thought for this exhibition, I also went back to my biography of Minton. It first appeared in 1991 but a new and updated edition was published by Lund Humphries in 2005 and, wonderfully, is still in print. Having not read its text since 2005, I was astonished by how much detailed information I had obtained about Minton’s life and work from talking with those who are no longer with us – Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Elinor  Bellingham-Smith, the brothers Bruce and Jeffery Bernard,  among a great many others. Had the book not been written at that time a great deal that we know today about Minton would have been lost.

His suicide at the age of 39 is an undeniable tragedy. But despite the melancholy underlying his life, he lived with such energy and enthusiasm that he left a joyous legacy. He had a gift for word play and his letters ripple with mirth, while some of his nicknames for others – Baboon and Collide for Colquhoun and MacBryde, for example – are unforgettable. But it is his paintings and illustrative work that are above all so life-enhancing. His wartime landscapes are among the most powerful examples of English Neo-Romanticism. Later he became an urban romantic, painting industrial and urban scenes, as well as a significant series of portraits, mostly of young men. Some of his last paintings are grand narrative scenes which he sent to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, in an unexpected move to court establishment approval. But there are many facets to Minton’s life and work, which is why his art continues to surprise and show us new things.

Frances Spalding

Buy John Minton: Dance til the Stars Come Down by Frances Spalding (Hardback £25) here from the Lund Humphries website (free UK postage).

Mknton by Deakin

Photograph of John Minton taken by John Deakin

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