John Minton

John Minton

Minton, (Francis) John (1917–1957), 

Painter and illustrator, was born on 25 December 1917 at Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire, the second of the three sons of Francis Minton (c.1876–1930), solicitor, then of East Sheen, London, and his wife, Kate Key, née Webb (c.1876–1952). He received his education between 1925 and 1935 at Northcliff House, Bognor Regis, Sussex, and at Reading School, where he opted for John as his principal forename. He then studied under P. F. Millard at St John's Wood Art Schools, London. There he met Michael Ayrton (1921–1975) who, though his junior by several years, greatly affected his development by introducing him to James Thrall Soby's book After Picasso. Minton's response to the Parisian neo-romantics described therein was increased by eight months, largely in the company of Ayrton, spent in Paris and—at that time remote and magical—Les Baux-de-Provence immediately prior to the outbreak of war. The influence of Eugène Berman, Pavel Tchelitchew, and the early work of Giorgio de Chirico was plainly evident in the crepuscular street scenes from London's war-torn docklands which he painted between 1940 and 1942. He collaborated with Ayrton on costumes and décor for John Gielgud's production of Macbeth (1942); in the same year he shared an exhibition with Ayrton at the Leicester Galleries in London.

Having withdrawn an earlier expressed conscientious objection to the war, Minton was called into the Pioneer Corps in the autumn of 1941, was commissioned in 1943, but was released on medical grounds later that year. On his return to London he shared a studio until 1946 with the Scottish painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, and thereafter for some years with Keith Vaughan. His mature style comprised a compound of urban romanticism learned from Berman and pastoral intricacy learned from Samuel Palmer, and the formalizations employed by Wyndham Lewis and the sonorous colour employed by Colquhoun and MacBryde. He quickly gained recognition among the young British romantics of those first post-war years.

Minton's activities were manifold, his capacity for work prodigious. He taught in turn at three distinguished London schools—Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (now Camberwell College of Arts), briefly at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, and between 1948 and 1956 at the Royal College of Art. He undertook very many richly textured decorations and illustrations for books, magazines, and advertising—notably a travel book on Corsica (Time was Away, 1948) with Alan Ross, an English translation (1947) of Alain-Fournier's Le grand Meaulnes, and Elizabeth David's first cookbooks, A Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) and French Country Cooking (1951). The Listener, Penguin New Writing, Lilliput, and Vogue were only some of the publications to use his drawings, and he made sorties into almost every field of design, from posters (Ealing Studios, London Transport) to wallpaper (John Lines & Sons), the Chelsea Arts ball to settings for Don Juan in Hell at the Royal Court Theatre (1956).

Minton's paintings, drawings, and watercolours poured forth in a steady stream, many reflecting his travels in Spain (1948 and 1954), the West Indies (1950), and Morocco (1952). Between 1949 and 1956 he held five one-man shows at the Lefevre Gallery and contributed to many group exhibitions. His natural facility embraced an exceptional sense of decoration and colour combined with precision of draughtsmanship—seen clearly in his admirable portraits of students and friends, such as that of the critic Nevile Wallis (1952). From the late 1940s he embarked on large set-pieces; for example, The Death of Nelson (1952, Royal College of Art, London). In 1949 he was elected to the London Group and, from that year, showed regularly at the Royal Academy's summer exhibitions. However, he could not respond to the new waves of abstraction sweeping in from the United States and he increasingly felt himself out of touch with current fashion.

From the mid-1940s Minton made no secret of his homosexuality, though he is thought to have remained ill at ease with it. He lived always in the moment, driven urgently by a need for company and change. These he found in the press of young students he took under his wing—‘Johnny's circus’. An inheritance in 1949, stemming from his maternal grandfather, served further to lubricate a way of life that was already frenetic. As he oscillated between exuberance and black despair his days became increasingly disordered, and his dependence on alcohol, finally, self-destructive. In 1956 he took a year's leave of absence from the Royal College of Art. On 20 January 1957 at his home in Apollo Place, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, London, he took an overdose of drugs and died while being taken to St Stephen's Hospital. He was cremated four days later at Golders Green.

In appearance Minton was striking, with a shock of jet-black hair surmounting a lantern face of extraordinary gravity in repose but totally transformed by enthusiasm or mirth. His hands were long and lean. From his gangling presence came a ceaseless crackle of nervous energy. He was an exuberant companion, beloved by his very many friends for the sweetness of his character, an infectious gaiety, and the intelligence which underlay his defensive clowning. In a letter to The Times after his death Robin Darwin wrote of ‘a magical quality in him which will remain for us unique’.

Minton is often seen as an illustrator rather than a painter. He certainly extended and enriched the English graphic tradition. In all his varied output, however, may be sensed an elegiac awareness of the evanescence of physical beauty that is entirely personal. His work is to be found in the Tate collection, and many public and private collections at home and abroad. A retrospective exhibition of 1994, curated by his biographer, Frances Spalding, provided a convincing reminder of the range of his gifts. For the historian he must remain a potent symbol of his period.

Michael Middleton for DNB