The Snail that climbed the Eiffel Tower and other work by John Minton

by Martin Salisbury, The Mainstone Press, Norwich, 2017. ISBN 978-0-9576665-3-5. £35
Published British Art Journal, Vol XIX, No.1

The Mainstone Press is well known for producing beautiful books and this is no exception. Previous publications have particularly focussed on Ravilious and it is interesting to compare the work of Ravilious and Minton, where it overlaps in the world of illustration. Both had, for example, the quirky eye which seems to characterise some of the great illustrators: the telling touches of detail which cause the viewer to recognise, with pleasure, the skill of the depiction. The way, for example, in which Ravilious shows the light from the periscope shining into the eyes of the submarine captain and the stylised foliage behind the cricketers in the wood engravings. Minton has that perceptive eye for detail to an extreme degree. Each work is full of the closest observation, but the detail never diminishes the impact of the illustration.

John Minton’s artistic career has to be approached in a particular way: there seems to be little scope now to move his reputation in the artistic canon from the place it has been given amongst twentieth-century neo-Romantic British artists. Commentators tend to agree on what he was and what he achieved. The shortness of his life (dying at the age of 39) and the manner of his death (suicide), together with the multiple accounts which survive of his personality and lifestyle (if captured in a single word it might have to be something like “rackety”), means that we all think we know Minton. That is not to say that there is necessarily critical agreement on his stature. The small army of commentators whose priority is to sustain the status of Francis Bacon would not accord Minton a high status and of course their master was rather severe on the illustrator’s art (and on Minton personally, by all accounts). Those coming to the art of the 1940s and 1950s with a view to grading painters, whether by British, European or International standards, place Minton’s painted output in a little backwater – charming but irrelevant to the wider achievements of modern art – of Romanticism. Crude and unfair as this is, it is how it is: Minton’s “importance” as a painter was less than that of some others.

This book shows what nonsense is perpetrated on skilful artists such as Minton by the crude simplifications of the art world, necessary as they undoubtedly are in order to make sense of the art scene. Seen in the round, the career of multi-talented artists, such as Minton, demonstrates a superb level of achievement across a wide range of artistic “disciplines”. To Minton can be added Ravilious, Bawden, Piper and no doubt many others whose considerable artistic skills were of a type which could be spread across different media. The achievements of these artists was prodigious.

In the early years of his short career, Minton understandably soaked up the influence of the artists he mixed with. There is a parlour game to be played here: spot the influence of Sutherland, Colquhoun, Macbryde and Jankel Adler; maybe something from Craxton and Vaughan, or early William Scott. But the game is irrelevant. It is probably right to say that when young these artists were all dipping into the same bucket of references which were available to them at the time as they learnt to refine their vision. There can surely be no denying that Minton’s mature style whether as painter or illustrator was uniquely his own, powerful and effective for what he was seeking to achieve. One opens this glorious book at random and the point is made.

What is true of Minton’s work – and is maybe true for all artists – is that he was self-referential. The style has elements which are consistently used from different periods. Bombed wartime buildings pop up in the background of certain works even though the war was long finished; the flora observed in Corsica in 1947 makes a regular appearance even when Corsica is not the subject, as does the fauna of Jamaica later. The Romantic moon of Samuel Palmer via Graham Sutherland sticks in Minton’s mind throughout his working life.

Amongst all the beautiful work the illustrations to “Time was Away” by Alan Ross, published by John Lehmann in 1948, are superb. Ross was a subtle writer and seems to have enjoyed travelling and working with Minton. The product was an instant classic, the powerful illustrations showing Minton at his height; inventive and effective.

Martin Salisbury has produced a classic and he has been beautifully supported by the Mainstone Press. As an object alone, this book is a delight; knowing nothing about the artist, one could leaf through this production and gorge on its quality. There can be no better way to remind the art world that they diminish artists like Minton at their peril; his paintings were the tip of his iceberg and it is only when they are taken with his other work that his skills and achievements get their proper recognition. He may have had a short life as an artist, but what a marvellous range of achievements.