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‘John Minton: A Centenary’ at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester

John Minton, 'Jamaican Village'

One of the leading lights of British Neo-Romanticism in the 1940s, John Minton’s fame once eclipsed even that of his artist peers Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, only to slowly wane in the decades following his suicide in 1957 at the age of thirty-nine. John Minton: A Centenary shines the spotlight once more on this forgotten artist, in the first major solo exhibition of his work for twenty-five years. Now on display at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, Minton’s vivid, melancholy artworks and singular vision more than merit rediscovery.

From the sullen docks of London’s East End to the languid tropics of Jamaica by night, John Minton’s paintings – in style and subject – describe an artist of many facets. More often than not they imply a certain visual predilection or aesthetic state of mind, Minton himself once having written that ‘a man will paint only of himself and of the things he knows, loves, hates, desires.’ If that is so, John Minton: A Centenary brings into unsteady focus a contradictory character; a man just as likely to be found dancing on Soho table-tops as lost in the depths of depression, as at home painting industrialized UK cities as tropical plantations.

Image Credit: Bridge from Cannon Street, John Minton

The exhibition emphasizes – rightly –  that Minton was a draughtsman, first and foremost. Throughout his life he taught drawing at various prestigious institutions, including the Camberwell School of Art and the Royal College, and in later life found great success as a book jacket illustrator. Ever seeking the elision of fine art and illustration, his early pen and ink drawings are dense, yet surprisingly agile; the pastoral scenes oddly darkened by the medium, with the whole side of paper worked and thatched with ink. These pieces were made during the Second World War, during which Minton had enlisted in the army and been stationed amid the mountains of North Wales. His beguiling countryside scenes from this period seem to emanate escapism, but they have an edge of unease that betrays the lurking presence of war.

Image Credit: Kevin Maybury, Tate, John Minton

In 1943 Minton left the army following murky reports of a breakdown, but his paintings still sought escape from the harsh realities of life. Following the war, austerity hung like a storm-cloud over Britain. Minton’s response was to brighten his colour palette – inspired in part by the work of Picasso and Matisse – and leave for sun-dappled Corsica on an illustration commission; a far cry from post-war Britain where rationing was still in full force. The series of paintings from this trip throb with bright light and vibrant subject matter, with Minton painting still life pieces featuring watermelons and turquoise waters. The Corsican fantasy endured for Minton long after the trip ended, resurfacing in works such as the erotically charged A Corsican Fisherman, which portrays a semi-nude, bronzed male figure by a silvery, moonlit sea.

Image Credit: Deacon, Portrait of Minton

Minton’s fascination with travel grew, becoming for him ‘a sort of drug’. Trips to Israel, Italy, Morocco, Norway and Sweden ensued, leading to him spending three months in 1951 on the island of Jamaica. His colour palette intensified, breaking out into acid greens and yellows, and his paintings and prints of banana plants are seen as emblematic of this time. Some of these works have a Gauguin-esque quality, featuring eroticized black bodies in exotic settings, as in Tropical Fruits; the title itself a nod to the artist’s own homosexuality. But the masterpiece from this period is more subtly sultry than overtly erotic – the large, almost panoramic canvas of Jamaican Village, recently discovered after decades hanging quietly in a barn.

Image Credit: Tropical Fruits, John Minton

Minton’s homosexuality is frequently embedded in his work, but never too far from the surface. It is certainly significant that the exhibition opens in a year marking the fiftieth anniversary of the (partial) legalization of homosexuality in Britain. It is clear from Minton’s work, for example, that his subjects were overwhelmingly male, and that he had a preference for muscular, virile types – several of his boyfriends were bodybuilders. He painted various portraits of boyfriends and lovers, including of the dancer Raymond Ray, who was approached by Minton to sit for him after seeing Ray perform in Guys and Dolls, and of Kevin Maybury, who was the first to discover Minton’s body.

It is all too easy to cast Minton's life in the shadow of his suicide: at the entrance to the exhibition hangs a portrait of the artist by his friend Lucian Freud, commissioned by Minton himself, some say with his own death in mind. The painting found on his easel at the time of his death was a semi-completed piece entitled Composition: The Death of James Dean, which melds the aftermath of a car crash in a small Spanish town with the famous actor's death. Mortality evidently preoccupied Minton, but his works remain as vivid and life-affirming as ever.

John Minton: A Centenary is on display at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester until October 1.