John Minton, 1951. Photo © Estate of Russell Westwood  National Portrait Gallery, London. Artwork © Estate of John Minton

‘He was one of the greats’ — John Minton’s Children by the Sea

As a preparatory study for a work held by Tate comes to auction, Jessica Lack illuminates the tragically brief career of the brilliant yet tortured British artist nicknamed the ‘King of Bohemia’

 

In the summer of 1944, John Minton (1917-1957) wrote from Marazion in Cornwall to his friend Judith Holman, ‘God how I love the land — to stand and see it move in intricate perspective to the heat haze of the gentle skyline.’

The landscape he was referring to was the rugged coastline around Mount Bay, where the painter was living in a gypsy caravan belonging to his friend, the poet W.S. Graham. For the next six weeks, Minton worked on studies that would become some of the most important paintings of his career. Among them was the 1945 picture Children by the Sea, which is now part of the Tate Collection.

On 29 September Christie’s is offering for sale a preparatory drawing for Children by the Sea , which was formerly part of Holman’s collection. ‘It is a spectacular drawing,’ says Christie’s specialist Albany Bell. ‘The draughtsmanship is outstanding — you are in awe of the artist’s mastery.’

John Minton, Children by the Sea, 1945. Ink, wash and gouache on paper. 18⅜ x 15¾ in (46.8 x 40 cm). Estimate £25,000-35,000. Offered in Modern British Art on 29 September 2020 at Christie’s in London
John Minton, Children by the Sea, 1945. Ink, wash and gouache on paper. 18⅜ x 15¾ in (46.8 x 40 cm). Estimate: £25,000-35,000. Offered in Modern British Art on 29 September 2020 at Christie’s in London

Minton was born into a respectable middle-class family in Cambridgeshire in 1917. In the mid-1930s, he went to study at St John’s Wood Art School, where he met fellow student Michael Ayrton (1921-1975). Together, they became part of an abundantly talented wartime group of artists that included Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.

By the age of 27, Minton had had three critically acclaimed exhibitions at London’s high-profile Redfern Gallery and was also enjoying a prolific career as an illustrator. In Corsica in 1948 with the poet Alan Ross (1922-2001), he would create one of the most significant illustrated books of the 20th century, Time Was Away.

As the rising star of British art, Minton should have relished his celebrity, and in some ways he did, partying at the Colony Room with other denizens of Soho and taking to the dance floor with such ebullience that he became known as the King of Bohemia. As a gifted and charismatic teacher at the Camberwell School of Art and Royal College of Arts, his entourage of students became known as ‘Johnny’s circus’.

Yet beneath the gaiety Minton was a tortured soul, prone to manic episodes. In 1943, he had been discharged from the British Army after suffering a total breakdown. The incident is recorded by Minton’s biographer Frances Spalding in John Minton: Dance till the Stars Come Down.

‘One day he asked himself, “What the hell am I doing?” and simply lay down on the parade ground and refused to get up. Another story is that, in a state of complete despair, he lay all night on the parade ground with his face in a puddle hoping to drown himself.’

He was sent to Shenley Military Hospital from where he wrote, ‘Finally you see I just went crazy, I mean quite literally, the whole of my life became so confused and I began to feel the most violent frustrations about painting.’

In Cornwall, Milton’s feelings of desperation and anxiety were overtaken by a powerful artistic awakening

It wasn’t simply army life that had brought on Minton’s psychotic episode. From an early age, the artist had struggled with the knowledge that he was homosexual. Soon after joining up, he decided to out himself to his friends, writing to Ayrton, ‘You must have some idea of it already, that I am as sexually queer as anyone you are likely to meet, and in London when I was there and about the place I would wander around the streets on the summer nights feeling desperate and pick up any boy that would have me. It was all there in my paintings…’

It was a courageous decision, but it exposed Minton to possible blackmail and prosecution, and he was now fearful of the consequences. The trip to Marazion was taken at the behest of his friends, who had become increasingly disturbed by the artist’s agitated state.

In Cornwall, Minton’s feelings of desperation and anxiety were overtaken by a powerful artistic awakening. He found in the rough-hewn landscape a place he could retreat to, leaving the real world for one of fantasy. The lyrical paintings he made there secured him a leading place in the British Neo-Romantic movement.

John Minton, Children by the Sea, 1945. Oil paint on canvas, 94.7 × 76 cm, Tate. Photo © Tate. Artwork © Estate of John Minton
John Minton, Children by the Sea, 1945. Oil paint on canvas, 94.7 × 76 cm, Tate. Photo: © Tate. Artwork: © Estate of John Minton

Children by the Sea  depicts a line of children leading out from a house, watched by a solitary schoolboy who seems psychologically cut off from the others. According to Bell, the drawing has an ‘underlying sense of intrigue and mystery’.

Spalding suggests the work could be a reflection of Minton’s lonely childhood and interest in child psychology and emerging sexuality. She also sees the influence of European modernists like Paul Klee, whom Minton had discovered through the Polish artist Jankel Adler (1895-1949), when the two briefly shared a studio in Notting Hill. ‘The strange shape and drawing of the heads reflects the influence of Adler, who had an interest in Chassidic poetry and mysticism,’ writes Spalding.

Minton gave the work to Holman, one of his students at the Camberwell School of Art, at some point in the late 1940s. He had been attracted by the 15-year-old’s sardonic sense of humour and resemblance to a Modigliani painting. The two became close and took to introducing each other as cousins. Yet the friendship faltered in the early 1950s, as Minton’s psychological state worsened. Holman, who was then working as a model at the Royal College of Art, sensed that his restless brilliance was being devastated by drink.

The last time Holman saw Minton was on a train, writes Spalding. She found him excitable — ‘laughing like a manic depressive and unable to sit still. She was wearing a muff and as they left the train Minton remarked, “I thought you were going to smuggle me through the barrier in that.” He then kissed her on the cheek and said goodbye. She did not see him again.’

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Minton committed suicide in 1957 — at the age of 39. When Holman heard the news, she recalled, ‘You were glad somehow, he’d got away.’ Yet he left a rich legacy in his fierce, luminous paintings and his influence on younger artists, including Peter Blake and Bridget Riley. When the illustrator James Morrison was asked in a recent documentary what he thought of Minton, he answered, ‘There isn’t a pedestal big enough. He was one of the greats.’