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John Minton and the Romantic Tradition at The Lightbox, Woking

John Minton (1917-1957) The Hop Pickers, 1945 Copyright The Estate of John Minton and Royal College of Art

For most, John Minton, John Craxton and Keith Vaughan are unlikely to be household names. Like so much from 1945 to 1955, these artists’ legacies feel a little forgotten, overshadowed by the dramatic events of World War II that preceded them and the 60s counter-culture that would follow. A new exhibition opening in Woking, however, looks to throw new light on that neglected middle child – British post-war painting – and the values its chief protagonists earnestly portrayed.

John Minton and The Romantic Tradition is the latest exhibition from The Lightbox Gallery. Running until 9 March, the display showcases the work of a dozen post-war painters, including Neo-Romantic stalwarts Graham Sutherland and Michael Aryton, and the artists they inspired such as John Nash and Keith Vaughan. John Minton, one of the most prodigious artists of the British Neo-Romantic style, forms the centrepiece of the exhibition. Seven of his works feature, donated by the Ingram collection, including his famous The Hop Pickers.
For a time, John Minton was one of Britain’s most popular artists. The Cambridgeshire-born painter and illustrator studied at the St. John’s Wood School of Art and went on to become a tutor at Central School of Art and Design and the Royal College of Arts respectively. Between 1939 and 1957, he produced a prolific output of material spanning landscapes, portraits, interior design and commercial commissions, and became known for his sincere and heartfelt depictions.
Minton was quickly labelled as an exponent of the British “Neo-Romantic” movement – a term coined by critics and curators. Neo-Romantics harked back to the nostalgic environments of Samuel Palmer and William Blake, whilst incorporating the modernist approaches of the continent pioneered by Picasso and the Surrealists. Their paintings typically depicted man amongst the natural landscape, a halcyon relationship deemed increasingly under threat by the mechanical industry of modern life. Graham Sutherland became one of the forefathers of this artistic sentiment in Britain, creating a series of complex and evocative depictions of rural scenery. The Lightbox feature his Tin Mines, a rendition of the work of Cornish miners during the Second World War. The already small sketch—around a foot by a foot—is reduced into two dark chasms as gloomy figures crouch within the encircling walls.
The sombreness illustrated by Tin Mines is a feature common across the exhibition. Bristol Docks by John Northcote Nash, brother of famous surrealist Paul Nash, expresses a similar melancholia. A huddle of boats loll in the grey waters of a harbour. The muted palette of the steamers and buildings almost fades into the pale skies behind, lending the ships’ quiet inactivity a dejected tone. Minton’s The Kite has a more pronounced sorrow, as a pair of emaciated figures are shown collapsing in a war-torn landscape. Minton created the piece in 1940, at which time he was a conscientious objector to military conscription. Reminiscent of Dali and the powerful brushstrokes of the impressionists, the painting screams of the surreal and immediate horror of war.

John Minton (1917-1957) The Kite, 1940 © The Estate of John Minton and Royal College of Art
John Minton (1917-1957) The Kite, 1940 © The Estate of John Minton and Royal College of Art
The Second World War had a profound impact on the younger Neo-Romantics. Even those painters who did not fight became embroiled in the ideologies contemporaries saw at the conflict’s heart. The British Government funded the ‘Recording Britain’ scheme, an ambitious project commissioning leading artists to capture key sites of British Heritage. Many figures including Minton, Sutherland, and John Caxton actively engaged with the scheme, which went on to influence the works they would create in the post-war years. Caxton’s Reaper in a Welsh Landscape (1945) depicts a farmer, pitchfork to hand, standing upright amid rolling green fields. The painting eulogises the memory of a pastoral Britain, the block Cubist colours exaggerating its simplicity: this is a heroic everyman honestly cultivating the romantic Welsh countryside that surrounds him – countryside in threat of destruction.
The earnest simplicity demonstrated by Caxton was a mainstay of the Neo-Romantics. The very materials they employed demonstrated restraint – another result of the conflict that surrounded them. Oil paint was in short supply throughout the war; its base substance—oil—required to fuel the war effort. Artists were forced to discover alternative materials. Caxton used pastels and crayon in creating Reaper. Others recoursed to ink, watercolours and gouache as an oil paint substitute. Keith Vaughan, one of the most popular Neo-Romantics, utilized a whole range of mediums in shaping The Garden at Ashton Gifford, featured in the exhibition. A mournful portrayal of the Royal Pioneer Corps felling trees in 1942, the painting’s muddle of styles and confused, sprawling lines exude a sense of pained bewilderment at the conflict and loss of life that was driving such activity.
Vaughan was one of the sadder figures of the Neo-Romantic movement. Along with John Minton, his life was marked by personal turmoil and tragedy. Both figures were gay in a period of time when homosexuality was illegal; both eventually committed suicide. Minton’s decline was reportedly spurred by the dwindling popularity of his work. The rise of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism in the late 50s increasingly eclipsed the less adventurous Neo-Romanticism. The contemporary mood had moved on from lamenting the passing of a pastoral age. This was a bright new era of plastic, electric rock and mini-skirts.
In comparison to the wry introspections of Warhol or explosiveness of Pollock, the Neo-Romantics do feel a little po-faced. The dewy-eyed spectacles with which they view the landscape around them won’t suit everyone’s tastes. John Minton and the Romantic Tradition, however, is a revealing exhibition about a lesser-known chapter in our cultural history. For their era, Minton and co. were innovators, and the Lightbox offers another chance to reacquaint yourself with the mood of a unique moment in time.
John Minton and The Romantic Tradition continues until 9 March. For more information on the exhibition, see online.