Skip to content

John Minton’s East End

August 2, 2021
by the gentle author

Martin Salisbury author of The Snail that climbed the Eiffel Tower, a monograph of John Minton’s graphic work, explores Minton’s fascination with the East End.

Never quite accepted by the establishment during his brief, rather tragic life, artist John Minton (1917—1957) has divided opinion ever since. Brilliant illustrator, inspirational teacher, prodigious habitué of Soho and Fitzrovia drinking establishments, Minton was bound to enter the folklore of post-war London. Somehow, he embodied the mood of elegiac romanticism that pervaded the arts through the forties and into the early fifties before fizzling out to be replaced by a more forward-looking, assertive art in the form of American abstract expressionism and British ‘kitchen-sink’ realism.

His life, riddled as it was with contradictions, began on Christmas Day 1917 in a wooden house near Cambridge, of an architectural style that some have termed ‘Gingerbread,’ and ended just under forty years later in Chelsea. He had apparently taken his own life. More than a hundred years after his birth, Minton is finally receiving the recognition enjoyed by other mid-century greats, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and John Piper.

Arguably, John Minton was at his best as a graphic and commercial artist, perhaps best known for his sublime illustrations for publisher John Lehmann to Elizabeth David’s highly influential food writing and Alan Ross; Corsica travel journal, Time Was Away, a lavish anti-austerity production. Yet Minton’s urban romanticism found its way into many commercial commissions too. Wartime drawings of bombed-out buildings in Poplar still exhibited the samr overwrought theatricality that was a feature of his work while under the spell of friend and fellow artist, Michael Ayrton.

In the immediate post-war years, as Minton’s work drew more consistently on direct observation, his visual vocabulary matured and his frequent visits to the river resulted in a mass of drawings of the cranes and wharves of the Port of London and Bankside. Rotherhithe from Wapping was painted in 1946 and a three-colour lithograph of the same composition followed two years later, renamed Thames-side.

The flattened perspective in this pictures embraces barges in the foreground and the jumble of warehouses on the far bank in the background. Typically, this image includes a pair of male figures in intimate conversation. Minton’s sexuality was central to his work and these dockland images embody the frustration he felt as a gay man at a time when sex between men was illegal. The many hours that Minton spent haunting the riverside allowed him not only to draw but to enjoy the company of sailors and dockers. Time and again, his pictures feature solitary male figures or distant pairs, huddled together, walking at low tide or working on boats, dwarfed by the surrounding buildings and brooding clouds.

John Minton’s only commission for London Transport came from publicity officer, Harold F. Hutchison in the form of a ‘pair poster’ titled London’s River. This concept involved posters designed in adjoining pairs, with one side featuring a striking pictorial image and the other containing text. The familiar dockland images are reworked here in gouache, in similar manner to the series of paintings commissioned for Lilliput in July 1947, London River.

An unpublished rough cover design for The Leader magazine executed in 1948 features another of Minton’s favourite motifs, the elevated street view. In this instance, the foreground figure gazing from an upper window bears more than a passing resemblance to the artist himself. The composition takes us beyond the streets below to the Thames via the dome of St Paul’s. A similar view, this time of the author’s native Hackney, graces the dust jacket of Roland Camberton’s Rain on the Pavements, published in 1951 by John Lehmann. This was the second of Camberton’s two novels, both with dust jackets designed by Minton, and tells the story of David Hirsch’s early years growing up in Hackney Jewish society.

In his 2008 article Man in a MacIntosh, Iain Sinclair followed in the footsteps of a fellow Hackney writer, recognising, “Camberton, in choosing to set ‘Rain on the Pavements’ in Hackney, was composing his own obituary. Blackshirt demagogues, the spectre of Oswald Mosley’s legions, stalk Ridley Rd Market while the exiled author ransacks his memory for an affectionate and exasperated account of an orthodox community in its prewar lull.”

John Minton’s magnificent jacket design draws us into that world with effortless elegance.

Rain on the Pavements, 1951

Scamp, 1950

Wapping, 1941

Bomb-damaged buildings, Poplar, 1941

Rotherhithe from Wapping, 1946

London Bridge from Cannon Street Station, 1946

London’s River, Lilliput 1947

London’s River, Lilliput 1947

London’s River, Lilliput 1947

Illustrations from Flower of Cities, 1949

London’s River: Pool of London, London Transport, 1951

The Leader, 1948

Isle of Dogs from Greenwich, 1955

Illustrations copyright © Estate of John Minton

You may also like to read about Alfred Daniels & Terry Scales who were taught by John Minton

Alfred Daniels, Artist

Terry Scales, Artist

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Saba permalink
    August 2, 2021

    Exceptional, fabulous artist. A talent beyond most others. One of the best you have ever brought to us. Wow!

  2. August 2, 2021

    Fabulous paintings by John Minton – such robust strength of design and colour. I recently read ‘Scamp’ by Roland Camberton, reissued in 2010 with an introduction by the great Iain Sinclair. It’s an exhilarating romp through Bloomsbury and Fleet Street in 1950 – highly recommended.

  3. Peter Hart permalink
    August 2, 2021

    I agree with Saba. Brilliant artist. Who died so tragically young.

  4. August 2, 2021

    Great article. My father-in-law knew ‘Johnny’ Minton in Chelsea and also shared a flat with Roland Camberton, real name Henry Cohen, I introduced him to Iain Sinclair, who was researching East London writers for his book Rose Red Empire. I have always been a fan of Minton’s graphic work. There is an exhibition currently featuring him, Freud and Ryan at the Victoria Gallery in Bath.

  5. Jon permalink
    August 2, 2021

    The Pool of London, London Transport painting has always been a favourite of mine. I was pleasantly surprised to see it on the wall of the Managing Director’s office of London Transport at their old 55 Broadway offices on a recent guided tour. Does anyone know if that is the original? On close inspection it appeared to be, but it might just have been a high quality print.

    John’s biography ‘Dance ‘Til The Stars Come Down’ by Frances Spalding is a wonderful book about the man and his life and times. I can highly recommend it.

  6. Kelly Holman permalink
    August 2, 2021

    I went on from viewing this fantastic work to read your piece about Terry Scales where you included this quote: “A man who paints puts his heart on the wall and in that painting is the man’s life” – John Minton, 1951.

    I also read Alfred Daniels’ comment about John Milton: ‘a lovely man, if only he hadn’t been so mixed up.’

    I found it very moving to feel the truth of these comments in the work.

    Thank you for all three fabulous pieces.

  7. August 2, 2021

    Total mastery, on all fronts. Minton was the total package — a commercial artist gifted with a true sense of composition, balance, and flawless color selection. He blended those rare gifts with the distinctive skills of a fine artist; creating strong narratives and turning out singular views. A born story-teller.

    Just take another look at the (perhaps) ink-and-wash cover for “The Leader / 1948”. Spend a moment studying the man in the window…….and I guarantee that face will remain with you all day.

    Thank you, GA, for highlighting this masterful and prolific artist.

  8. Linda Granfield permalink
    August 2, 2021

    Thank you, Sydney, for the Victoria Gallery (Bath) lead. I just spent a pleasant hour ‘walking’ through the virtual tour and two videos.
    There are some powerful Minton works in that gallery exhibition. Valencia, and those huge canvases featuring male models are fantastic.
    I’ll be re-visiting both this article, G.A., and the gallery before the tour is gone.

  9. Sonia Murray permalink
    August 3, 2021

    Minton’s Wapping, 1941 conveys the full horror of the Blitz and its bomb shocked survivors. This magnificent, dark painting belongs in the National Gallery. Are there more of this quality in the artist’s work?

  10. Cherub permalink
    August 3, 2021

    There is such talent in this work. I totally empathise with the frustration of being a gay man, as one of my very elderly friends is also from the era when it was still an offence. I read Minton’s biography on Wikipedia and was sad he took his own life. On another note, I have friends who live in the village where he was born but I don’t know if there is any acknowledgment of his talent there.

  11. August 3, 2021

    Amazing talent, and very saddened by his short life, as happened to other talented people who didn’t always ‘fit the mould’

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS