By Ian Massey

Ridinghouse. 253 pages. £30. ISBN 978-1-909932-69-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

St Ives has a fascinating history as an art colony, and more than one book has focused on what happened there in the years following the Second World War. Painters and sculptors like Barbara Hepworth, Denis Mitchell, Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, and others, made the small coastal town a centre of international attention in terms of developments in the arts. It’s obvious that there must have been a number of lesbians and homosexuals among the populace, whether locals or outsiders, but it needs to be remembered that it was a time (the 1940s through to well into the 1960s) when it was safer to hide one’s sexual proclivities which, in the case of gay men, could lead to prosecution and imprisonment. And even just on an everyday level a hint of deviance could result in provocation and physical assaults. Beating up a queer was seen as normal and not to be condemned in the northern industrial town where I grew up in the 1940s and 1950s.

At the centre of Ian Massey’s book is John Milne, a sculptor born in 1931 into a working-class family in Eccles, a town now incorporated into the Greater Manchester conurbation. His father was a tailor who worked from home and his mother took in boarders at what Massey says was a “substantial semi-detached house”.  Milne had shown some talent for drawing but, due to pressure from his father, initially went to Salford Technical College to study on the Junior Building Course, He was unhappy at the thought of a career in the building trades and his mother, aware that he wanted to be an artist, and with assistance from the Head of the School of Art, managed to have him transferred to the Art course.

Massey says that “Upon his completion of his general training in art and design, Milne decided to specialise in sculpture, a choice resulting from his fascination with the work of the Romanian Constantin Brancusi, which he had come across in photographic reproduction”. Described as “a driven and productive student”, he exhibited locally. Insofar as his personality was concerned, Massey refers to him being “highly sensitive in nature” with “nothing in common with the rest of his family” who “shared none of his interests in classical music and poetry and found themselves bemused by him”.   

It was inevitable that Milne would make friends and contacts among similarly-minded people, and “Manchester had a rich cultural scene in the post-war world of the late 1940s”. He got to know students whose hang-out was “The Kardomah on Deansgate, a subterranean coffee house with arched and vaulted recesses”. Massey’s evocation of the bohemian scene in the city is helped along by his use of novels by Tony Warren, perhaps best-known for his links to Coronation Street. His The Lights of Manchester mentions “Magda Schiffer…a Manchester bohemian legend” and Massey says she was based on the real-life Käthe Schuftan who, Milne later recalled, “had been a strong and encouraging influence on him during his student years”. A German Jew she had left when Hitler came to power and she was under suspicion because of her political commitments and the fact of her art work being unacceptable to the Nazis. 

I haven’t the space to mention all the artists, writers and others included in Massey’s survey of the post-1945 Manchester scene, though I was intrigued to see the painter Rowley Smart referred to in passing. He had died in the 1930s but people who had known him were still in the city. It’s worth reading this section of the book for its own sake, and not just because of its relevance to Milne’s life. But it was because of his involvement in the bohemian world, and the homosexual aspect of it, that in 1951 Milne met Cosmo Rodewald, a wealthy American who was “a lecturer in classical history at Manchester University”.  Sixteen years older than Milne he was “highly cultured” and a “discreet philanthropist”. He was to be of importance in his life, in one way or another, for many years.

It would appear that Milne was more than well treated by Rodewald, with trips to Paris, Greece, and Turkey. In the words of Victor Sayer, who became Rodewald’s lifelong partner, “John was spoilt rotten by Cosmo”, and he recalled arguments between them when Milne “became yet more demanding”. Milne also studied in Paris for a time, enrolling at the prestigious La Grande Chaumière  which was under the directorship of Ossip Zadkine. But he was disappointed in the teaching methods, finding them too traditional and restrictive. It was abstraction he was looking towards.  On the other hand, being in Paris meant that he could get closer to the work of Giacometti and especially Brancusi, whose carvings in marble and wood particularly impressed him. 

Late in 1952 Milne journeyed south to St Ives where he was to become an assistant (unpaid at first) to the well-known Barbara Hepworth. Massey says it’s not clear how he established contact with Hepworth in the first place. Clearly it was, for Milne, an opportunity to work alongside an already-established sculptor and study her methods as well as developing his own. What wouldn’t have been in his mind was that St Ives would be his home for the rest of his life. Milne stayed with Hepworth for eighteen months and then left, determined to set up on his own as a sculptor. In 1956 the ever-generous Rodewald bought Trewyn (described by Massey as a “large double-fronted house on three floors”) for Milne, the idea being that he could boost whatever income he had from his sculptures by taking in paying guests.

One of those guests was Julian Nixon, who might be worthy of a book himself. He was a flamboyant gay, variously described as “just a camp little queen” and “living in a delusional world”. He had been arrested in 1954 with a number of other men and charged with gross indecency. This was when the police were conducting a campaign of surveillance and harassment against gay men and the press was particularly virulent in its comments on homosexuality. Most of Nixon’s co-defendants went to prison, one committed suicide before he could be sentenced, and Nixon himself was bound over for two years provided he spent twelve months in a mental hospital.

I don’t want to spend too much time on Nixon’s subsequent career. He seems to have survived by living off others, including elderly well-to-do ladies, trying to sue the writer Norman Levine for damages by claiming he’d been libelled in one of his stories, and even attempting to sue Milne for damages for “alienation of affection” of a young man who Nixon had brought to stay with him at Trewyn and who, he said, Milne had enticed away. In both cases he was persuaded by legal experts against going to court and possibly having his own shady past and activities brought to light.  

It’s of relevance to note that Massey is of the opinion that Milne’s hedonistic life-style probably worked against him completing a substantial body of work: “For the greater part of his career, Milne’s production of sculpture was sporadic”, Because of the support provided by Cosmo Rodewald there was little pressure on Milne to sell his work. And, Massey adds, he had periods of “mental instability” and made several suicide attempts, including one following the tragic death of Barbara Hepworth in a fire at her studio.

I mentioned earlier Milne’s hedonism, which not only included trips to North Africa in search of sex, something that many gays who could afford it did in the late-40s and 1950s, but also any number of “scandalous” parties at Trewyn and other  locations in and around St Ives. Some have gained almost-legendary status. The Canadian writer Norman Levine who lived for many years in St Ives, and whose novel, From a Seaside Town, is a key document in the literary history of the area, wrote a long story or novella called Playground with various easily-identifiable people portrayed in fictional form. This is the story in which Julian Nixon claimed to have been libelled. One of the other characters, a man called Starkie, commits suicide after arguing with his partner and other people at a party. Starkie was closely based on Edde Craze, a St Ives garage owner who mixed with the bohemian crowd and died in just the same way as Levine’s supposed fictional person. There was a lot of ill-feeling in the town towards the bohemians, local people blaming them for persuading Craze to participate in their antics.

It’s only fair to say that, despite Milne’s tendency to let other distractions get in the way of his creative work, he did produce some excellent sculptures. He exhibited in Britain, across the Continent, and in the United States. He was influenced by Brancusi and by Hepworth and her long-term assistant and fine sculptor, Denis Mitchell. Was Milne’s work distinctive enough to act as an influence”? I’ll let Massey provide the answer: “Did his work influence that of other artists? Not in any profound sense, although his formal repertoire finds certain echoes in sculpture made during the decades since his death, and he remains admired and collected. And while not of the first rank, in his twenty-five years or so as a mature artist he created a body of work that, at its considerable best, has a definite place in the crowded field of postwar British sculpture”.

Milne’s final years were not happy ones, He had an exhibition at the Gilbert Parr Gallery in April, 1978, but from a personal point of view he was not in good shape. Massey says “In his later years Milne was reliant not only on alcohol but on drugs”. He was often in debt, and alienated various friends by making constant demands for support. This was certainly the case with Cosmo Rodewald who Milne would phone in the middle of the night when he was drunk and beg for help. According to someone who knew them both: “He was in a desperate state, very pissed, very emotional….In the end he became a very neurotic drunk – he really needed medical treatment I think”.

Mine died on 24th June, 1978. There were suggestions that, because of his known previous attempts, he had committed suicide, but the inquest verdict was that it was an accidental death caused by an overdose of alcohol and barbiturates.

Queer St Ives and Other Stories is a fascinating book. As well as providing an account of John Milne’s life it throws light on an aspect of the culture of St Ives that has not been looked at in any depth in the past.  Ian Massey manages to pack in a great deal of information about interesting individuals like the artist Marlow Moss, somewhat overlooked and, according to Massey, “frozen out” of membership of the Penwith Society of Arts due to opposition from Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth who “saw Moss as an interloper, a threat to their primacy, both in St Ives and beyond”. Moss had known Mondrian and produced purely abstract works before Nicholson and Hepworth.  

There is also Ida Kar who visited St Ives in 1961 on an assignment for the Tatler magazine, and included John Milne among the artists she photographed. There is a particularly good picture of him in his studio in the book Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, published by the National Portrait Gallery, London in 2011, to accompany an exhibition of her work.

And then, of course, the very informative chapter on the post-war cultural and homosexual scenes, often intertwined, in Manchester. Not to mention St Ives fringe figures like Julian Nixon. And walk on parts by Keith Vaughan and Francis Bacon who described St Ives as “a stronghold of really dreary abstract stuff”.  It all adds up to a stimulating mixture that is enhanced by a first-rate selection of photographs of some of the people involved, and reproductions of art works, together with notes and a useful bibliography.