An exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 1st July to 1st October, 2017


By Simon Martin and Frances Spalding

Pallant House Gallery. 128 pages. £24.95. ISBN 978-1-8698-2786-1


An exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 10th June to 24th September, 2017


An exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery, Hastings, 24th May to 10th September, 2017

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Artists are sometimes remembered by the majority of people more for their links to other painters and places than for their own work. John Minton’s name crops up in all the books about Soho in the 1940s and 1950s, drinking alongside Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud In the Colony Room, being photographed by John Deakin, and tragically committing suicide at the age of 39. Jean Cooke was, for many years, overshadowed by her husband, John Bratby, who abused her in more ways than one, and was jealous of any sort of success she had with her paintings. But it would be a pity if Minton and Cooke were only known for their personal involvements with other artists. Both had something of value to offer in their own right.

John Minton was born in 1917 into a middle-class family and in later life was a trust beneficiary, so “was never dependent purely on his art, and he could be remarkably generous to his friends”. He had a good education, and in 1936 was awarded s scholarship at the St John’s Wood Art School. He exhibited at the Westheim Gallery in London in 1938, and thanks to his private income he was able to spend several months in France with Michael Ayrton. In 1939 he collaborated with Ayrton on designs for a production of Dido and Aeneas that was never realised.

The outbreak of war in 1939 found Minton at first attempting to register as a conscientious objector, but then enrolling for service in the army. He continued to exhibit and worked with Ayrton on designing sets and costumes for John Gielgud’s Macbeth at the Piccadilly Theatre. He was discharged from the army on health grounds in 1943, and for the next three years shared a studio with the Scottish artists, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde.

I don’t think it’s necessary to outline all of Minton’s activities in the post-war period. He exhibited regularly here and there, and contributed cover illustrations to publications like Penguin New Writing and for numerous novels. The exhibition in Chichester includes examples of his work in this line. He also travelled to France and Spain. And taught at various institutions, including the Royal College of Art. What also impresses is the range of people, especially artists,  that Minton knew and mixed with. They included Lucian Freud, Keith Vaughan, Francis Bacon, the two Roberts, Rodrigo Moynihan, Richard Chopping, Denis Wirth-Miller, and many others. The Soho bohemia of the late-1940s and 1950s was, in many ways, his natural habitat when he wasn’t teaching or painting.     

Minton’s seeming gregariousness and love of drinking and dancing may well have been signs of a basically insecure disposition that led to his suicide in 1957. Minton was openly homosexual at a time when it was a criminal offence and the police were actively attempting to entrap men into committing acts that would lead to their arrest. There is a dark painting in the exhibition that shows a figure loitering in the shadows as if in anticipation of some sort of assignation, or encounter, no matter how dangerous.

The material on show in Chichester encompasses a broad sample of Minton’s work, from colourful paintings, to some splendid pen and ink drawings, to illustrations for magazines and books, and film posters. And it’s especially encouraging to see that his skills as an illustrator are given their fair share of attention. There may be a tendency, in certain circles, at least, to relegate book and magazine covers, and other forms of what some will consider tantamount to advertising matter, to a lower category than canvases, but it strikes me as unfair if that Is the case.

There is much to be gained from looking at an apt jacket design for a novel, and Minton had a flair for such things. It may be that his best-known book covers are those he did for some Elizabeth David cook books, and that those for what are, in many cases, fairly obscure and forgotten novels, are consequently destined to be overlooked. But there are sufficient of them in the exhibition to persuade a fair-minded observer that Minton excelled at illustrating a variety of subjects.

With regard to his paintings, they often have an immediate impact because of their bright colours, particularly when Minton travelled to Corsica or Jamaica. But there are also some London scenes from 1946/47 in which, the catalogue suggests, “the strong colours suggest neither daytime nor night”. They certainly don’t adhere to a popular notion of post-war Britain as a grey and dismal place, though it has been suggested that they do point to a decline in the country’s fortunes, with its industrial base shattered. The picturesque is ultimately going to take over from the commercially busy. And the skies appear to indicate impending storms.

By 1957 or so tastes in art were beginning to change. Abstraction was coming to the fore and in 1956 the Tate staged a show of American Abstract Expressionism.  Minton was strongly opposed to abstraction, and it could have been that an awareness that his style of painting was being overtaken and likely to go out of fashion, combined with his alcoholism and his chaotic personal life, pushed him into suicide. For a deeper consideration of Minton’s mental state at the time of his death I’d recommend Frances Spalding’s Dance till the Stars Come Down: A Biography of John Minton (Hodder & Stoughton, 1991). It could also be useful to read the chapter on Minton in Malcolm Yorke’s The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists and their Times (Constable, 1988).  

Back in 1987, when I saw the exhibition, A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55 at the Barbican, John Minton had a prominent place in it. For obvious reasons he’s not included among the Neo-Romantic artists like MacBryde, Colquhoun, John Craxton, John Piper, Paul Nash, and several more, on show in Chichester. It’s instructive, though, to have a look at their work in order to see the kind of context Minton was operating in. In 1987 it was suggested that Neo-Romanticism had been “repressed and edited out of the history of British art and culture”, and it was true that abstraction and Pop Art and other post-1960 movements had more or less consigned Neo-Romanticism to, if not the dustbin, then the storage room of history.

It’s good that recent years have seen the paintings being brought out and put on display again. I’ve seen an exhibition of Colquhoun and MacBryde in Edinburgh, another of Robin Ironside in Chester, and earlier this year there was an exhibition, The Romantic Impulse: British Neo-Romantic Artists at Home & Abroad 1935-1959 at the Osborne Samuel Gallery in London. An informative catalogue was published in connection with the exhibition.

If Neo-Romanticism is “a difficult term to define”. and its “boundaries and content” have more to do with “a spirit of place” and an “impulse to convey a sense of Britishness”, then this might be a useful time for looking again at the work of Minton, Craxton, Leslie Hurry, Prunella Clough, and their contemporaries, not just to set the historical record right, but also to highlight the work of several imaginative artists. They can be looked on as members of a loosely-defined group, but perhaps more as individuals with characteristic, and sometimes similar, content (“the lyrical….the mystical, the romantic, and the preoccupation with linear rhythms….”) in their paintings.

Jean Cooke can’t be grouped with the Neo-Romantics, but she’s a neglected figure and deserves to be recognised for her own work and not just because she was at one time married to the roaring boy of the British art world, John Bratby. Life with him wasn’t easy and he wasn’t averse to painting over her canvases, and even damaging something of hers that he didn’t approve of. Bratby was, of course, the leading light of the so-called “kitchen-sink” school of artists, and even when he allowed her to paint he tried to get her to adhere to that style.

There is a 1958 painting by Jean Cooke in the Hastings exhibition, and it is very much akin to what John Bratby was doing. It shows him looking through an open window into the kitchen from outside. It has all the acknowledged signs of a “kitchen-sink” canvas, the bottles and packets, the glimpse of a sink. A later portrait of Bratby has him white-bearded and looking rather glum. Perhaps it was payback time for when he forced her act as his model and, to suit the kitchen-sink image, usually made her appear downtrodden and miserable, which she most likely was, anyway.

When she finally broke away from Bratby she left the kitchen sink behind, and had a reasonably successful career under her own name. The exhibition has some attractive nature scenes set in gardens and woods, and one or two conventional but likeable portraits. Jean Cooke wasn’t a major painter, but she could be an interesting one. The critic Andrew Lambirth said: “A characteristic Cooke painting takes the real world and views it from a slightly odd angle – as if musingly with head on one side”. It’s an accurate description of her approach to painting.