John Minton’s large-scale painting Jamaican Village is to be seen in public for the first time in 65 years, when it comes to auction at Christie’s Modern British & Irish Art Evening Sale on 23 November. The work was last exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1951, its year of production.
The artist gifted Jamaican Village to his friend Professor John Norris Wood, a distinguished natural history illustrator, who taught at the Royal College of Art. Wood made one attempt to sell the painting in order to fund a nature reserve, placing an advert in The Times. It was answered by art critic Brian Sewell, who described Jamaican Village as ‘splendid’ and said he would ‘very much like to have it’, but they could not agree a price.
Although the advert attracted further responses, no sale was forthcoming, and the painting never left Wood’s possession. It has remained in the Wood family ever since, although due to its exceptional size — it measures nearly 12 feet across — it has been kept in storage, unseen by its owners or visitors.
The work is a depiction of a village in Jamaica, a country that fascinated Minton after he visited it in 1950. Its landscape and villages inspired a new palette of sharp colours — from acid yellows to rich greens and magentas. The artist discovered the Jamaica’s beauty against a backdrop of political and racial tension. Writing in Vogue in 1951, Minton commented: ‘The island, like everywhere else, faces the problem of its equilibrium in a mad world.’
Critics have seen in Jamaican Village Minton’s own search for equilibrium. Towards the end of his life, the artist, who committed suicide in 1957, admitted to struggling with the ‘instant recognition’ his talent had brought him at a young age. This painting is rare among Minton’s works for its serenity; beneath its silent twilight exchanges, however, he identified ‘a disquiet that is potent and nameless’.
Though success may at times have troubled him, Jamaican Village was a powerful reiteration of Minton’s talent. Art historian Frances Spalding notes: ‘The fact that Minton chose to submit the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1951… suggests that the artist regarded it as a significant work… with hindsight, it is possible to view it as a bid to reaffirm his status in 1951 as one of the most notable artists of the day.’
Indeed, curator and writer Julian Machin notes: ‘Jamaican Village was painted at the height of Minton’s artistic celebrity, at 37 Hamilton Terrace, London NW8, a house spanning four windows across.’ The house faced west, and the setting sun streamed through sash windows. This, and the size of Minton’s new studio would feed into his practice — around the same time, the artist commented: ‘I’ve discovered that one can paint anything as long as it’s BIG. It gives a subject an importance that little paintings don’t have.’
The size of Jamaican Village suggests it may have been created with a specific location in mind. Spalding writes: ‘The mural-like size of Jamaican Village makes it possible that Minton had intended it as a wall decoration: for a bar of club, such as the Gargoyle where, for a period, a mural by him hung in the dining-room; or for the Colony Room where his murals in gouache on paper of Jamaican subjects temporarily ornamented walls.’
By the 1950s, both The Gargoyle Club and Colony Room had become legendary fixtures on London’s art scene, attracting a crowd of regulars that included Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Peter O’Toole and John Deakin. In the Gargoyle Club, Minton’s dining room mural sat alongside interiors by Henri Matisse — one of the club’s most prominent members.