Following a breakdown, John Minton came out of the army in 1943. A year later, after his brother Richard was killed in the war, he vowed never again to assist ‘the authority of governments’. His bitterness seeped into his wartime pen-and ink drawings of dark and frenzied landscapes. He was then teaching drawing and illustration at Camberwell School of Art and had moved in with Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde at 77 Bedford Gardens, a block of studio flats in Kensington, where the three men lived and worked more or less in one room. Jankel Adler, the Polish artist and exponent of European modernism, lived overhead, becoming an inspirational presence. In the summer of 1944, in need of escape, Minton spent six weeks in Cornwall with the poet W.S. Graham and his girlfriend Nessie Dunsmuir. They were lent two gypsy caravans at Germoe, near Praa Sands, south-east of Marazion. Minton, refreshed by the sun and sea, found his desire to paint revived by the force and complexity of the nature around him. His paintings of Cornwall form a diverse cluster and were exhibited in 1945 in solo exhibitions of his work held at Roland Browse & Delbanco and at the Lefevre Gallery. Many drawings had been made during his stay in Cornwall, and it is likely that Farm Machine was worked up from these and from memory. Its neo-romantic mood is less frenzied than his pen-and-ink landscapes but the painting has a similar density of effect. The influence of Graham Sutherland is suggested by inclusion of a disappearing path and in the way that Minton, like Sutherland, here paraphrases appearances for compositional effect. His use of colour is strong and rich, influenced to some extent by the palette favoured by Colquhoun and Macbryde, in their attempt to merge a modernist approach with their admiration for Celtic traditions.
The verso portrays an image of a young man in a red vest, dating back to the late 1930s. It may portray a ballet dancer but, if so, he is also a stand-in for the melancholic side of Minton’s character. Minton, together with Michael Aryton, had determined to spend time working in Paris after leaving the St Johns’s Wood Art School, having been inspired, by James Thrall Soby’s book After Picasso, to search out the French Neo-Romantics, notably two Russians based in Paris, Eugène Berman and Pavel Tchelitchev, and the Frenchman, Christian Bérard, artists who were closely involved with stage design for theatre and ballet and, in their pursuit of romanticism, looked back to Picasso’s Blue and Rose period.
‘It was rather bright’, Minton later wrote, looking back on this period, ‘…to indulge in the chichi despair of neo-romanticism, to portray the endless vistas of restless ennui and to be one of the generation that was so self-consciously lost: it was rather wonderful too I thought, because I loved so much and still do love this literature and painting of despair and melancholy. But now somehow it is no longer the game it was possibly because the questions it all posed became less remote, more tangible and insistent.’ (J. Minton, letter to Michael Middleton, 1 June 1943).
Sir Nicholas Goodison commented: 'Carel Weight, who was one of Minton's teaching colleagues at the Royal College of Art, described this painting to us in 1989 as akin to his own paintings, like a stage.'
We are very grateful to Frances Spalding for her assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.