EXHIBITIONS / You'll always find him in the kitchen: John Minton, Elizabeth David's illustrator, is a legendary figure in art-school history. Now, at last, comes his first retrospective

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The Independent Culture
MANY ARTISTS feel nostalgia for art school - one reason why we have so many legendary personalities who are held to epitomise a particular college. Harry Thubron at Leeds, Richard Hamilton at Newcastle, Barrie Cook at Birmingham, Anthony Caro at St Martin's and Brian Fielding at Ravensbourne all come to mind. John Minton is legendary too, yet people wouldn't still be talking about him were he not remembered by so many former students at Camberwell and the Royal College of Art.

He wasn't a leader, though. I understand him to have been a charming loser. Many felt protective of Minton, even if they were younger than he. They still do, none more so than Frances Spalding, who published a biography of the artist three years ago and has now organised his retrospective at the Guggenheim Gallery.

This amiable space, with oil paintings on one floor and prints and drawings on another, shows Minton off to good advantage. Much of the work is familiar, though perhaps not to younger generations. Minton died in 1957 and his characteristic work belongs to post-war neo-romanticism. Looking at it again I found period flavour rather than historical importance. Surely, one feels, he aimed only to be beguiling. So how could he have inspired or influenced anyone?

But still the legend goes on, and I've been searching for the reasons for this fame. The other day a veteran abstract painter, Henry Mundy, told me how interesting he found certain of Minton's classes at Camberwell in the 1940s. Students looked at ways of enlarging compositions. They used big sheets of paper pinned to the wall: this simplified design and flattened the perspective of their original notions. Perhaps this is a clue to Minton himself. A number of his paintings at the RCA look as if they would be more effective as murals. One of them, The Death of Nelson of 1952, is a scaled-down oil version of a real mural, Daniel Maclise's wall painting of the subject in the House of Lords.

An odd venture for Minton, but in line with one contemporary development. There was a fair amount of muralism after the war. Murals were often commissioned for new buildings, especially schools, British Restaurants and other public places. Minton's contribution to this tendency is discernible, though faint. So too with his stage designs, which have a contemporary atmosphere but - despite their function - no overwhelming raison d'etre. Alas, an absence of conviction weakens Minton's work in many fields, especially in a genre that he could have amplified and, as it were, patented as his own. By this I mean the homosexual portrait. Though for obvious reasons covert, this kind of portraiture was a concern of the period. We see it in Minton, in his Soho drinking companions Colquohoun and MacBryde, in John Craxton, in Bacon of course, and with later echoes in Hockney and Kitaj. A nice subject for an exhibition . . .

Anyway, if Minton had concentrated on painting young men, which is obviously what he liked to do, he might appear a more telling artist today. Instead, we are given too much of a rambling and inconsequential picturesqueness. It's as though black and pendulous tendrils of berry-bearing plants had crept over his imagination.

Minton's pictures of youths strike me as the best things in the show. They are not contrived and the artist's inherent moodiness is enlightened by an admiration that's not unmixed with lust. Such paintings are less decadent than Minton's landscapes and rather sinister street and dock scenes. These have the smell of death about them. Indeed, death is one of Minton's themes. Practically his last painting was The Death of James Dean. It's an awful mess, as was the artist himself by 1957, alcoholic, conscious of his failings and losing touch with the world. Friends had long been predicting his suicide.

Death at the age of 39 contributed to the Minton legend, but still the suicide was a human loss rather than a loss to art. Before his final phase he was obviously likeable, witty and generous. He gave away an inherited fortune, which helped to make him popular. What made him memorable, however, was his personality within the context of art education. Minton operated at a time when art teachers stopped being remote professors and started to be their students' friends instead. In many ways Camberwell was an old-fashioned place, aesthetically and socially. Minton couldn't force the pace of art: he hadn't the vision. But his bohemianism and social curiosity helped to change the style of art-school life, and this led to fun and innovation for others.

No one has ever written about the rich and diverse culture of British art schools. There isn't even the simplest history. But those of us who have lived in them know much about different colleges through lore - accumulated gossip, memory and personal tribute. In this way certain teachers got their sort of folk-hero reputation. Some of them, however, are remembered as monsters.

Not everyone who knew Minton recalls him with affection. Probably he was more appreciated at Camberwell than at the post-graduate Royal College of Art. I wouldn't dare call the RCA a vainglorious institution, but it does like to claim credit for students who were formed by their undergraduate art schools. And Minton was on the RCA staff when, even more than in later days, its students were transparently more intelligent and talented than their teachers. There was bound to be trouble; and when it came Minton looked like a reactionary and dilettante, no longer an enchanting friend but a tedious drunk.

In essence the dispute with his students was about abstraction, size, informal paint-handling and the influence of modern American art. How different big Abstract Expressionism must have seemed from the cautious advances of Camberwell and Festival-of-Britain muralism. Minton seemed to think that the end of the world had come. For him, it had.

The sadness of the present exhibition is not only in the middling quality of the work. In Minton's art as in his life there is a longing to be elsewhere, far from decisions or endeavour. This had one significant result, in his illustrations for Elizabeth David's books. The bohemian Minton has a permanent memorial in every middle-class kitchen in the country.

David's books - besides being about cooking - were travel writing of a high order, part of the British rediscovery of Europe after the war. She invited people to think of simple, happy luxury in not-too-far-off sunlit lands. Look again at Minton's response to the recipes. Aren't his illustrations funereal, shaped like tombstones, the writing designed like an epitaph, their sentiments elegiac?

John Minton: Royal College of Art, SW7 (071-584 5020), to 9 Feb.

(Illustration omitted)