He was trained as an architect, studying from 1934 to 1938 at the Architectural Association, and qualifying in 1939. During the war he served with the 14th Army and in Burma. After it, he worked in private practice as an architect and became a specialist in planning regulations, specifically in the field of the conservation and preservation of historic buildings. From 1963 to 1978 he worked with the Historic Buildings Division of the Greater London Council.
Milnes-Smith began to paint in the late 1940s in a representational style, but soon moved towards abstraction. In 1951 he took part in a pioneering exhibition, "British Abstract Art", at Gimpel Fils in London. He participated in many group show in the 1950s including the London Group, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Redfern Gallery, Lords Gallery and the Artists' International Association (AIA). In 1952 he was included in "The Mirror and the Square" at the AIA, an exhibition encompassing both social realism (the "mirror") and constructive abstraction (the "square").
In 1957 he was one of the exhibitors in "Metavisual, Tachiste, Abstract" at the Redfern, alongside most of the key exponents of British abstract painting of the time. Held the year after the first wave of American Abstract Expressionism arrived in Britain, as part of "Modern Art in the United States" at the Tate Gallery, it can be seen retrospectively as a seminal showing. In 1959, another influential Tate exhibition, "New American Painting", strengthened the impact of the Abstract Expressionists.
Milnes-Smith's paintings of the 1950s have a European flavour, close in spirit to that of the Scottish artist William Gear, a member of the Cobra Group, and the French artist Alfred Manessier, both of whose paintings utilised a linear armature containing areas of strong colour. In a review of Milnes-Smith's first one-man show at the New Vision Centre Gallery in 1959, Ian Forbes White wrote that "the forms of Milnes-Smith's paintings are held together by a framework of black lines, and for the most part squares of luminous colours positively flying out of a background of cloudy greys or ochre browns".
By the late 1950s, Milnes-Smith's paintings had become more emotional and gestural - his response to the pervading influence of the Abstract Expressionists. Like them he worked on a flat surface, but his "arena" was relatively domestic in scale - a table rather than the floor, in a room in his home. His works were modest in size compared to those produced by the Americans but, as Marina Vaizey pointed out in the catalogue for his 1990 show at Austin Desmond, "their explorations of space are grand as well as intimate".
In 1958 Milnes-Smith was included in "British Abstract Painting" at the Auckland City Art Gallery, New Zealand; in 1961 he was one of "Eight British Artists" (Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, Alan Davie, Elisabeth Frink, Kenneth Armitage, and Jack Smith were the others) at the Jefferson Place Gallery in Washington, DC. He was a member of the Central Committee of the AIA 1962-64.
In the late 1950s he began to produce collages, combining torn scraps of printed and plain paper with crayon lines reminiscent of the graphisme of Roger Hilton. He used ephemera such as old gallery invitations, paint charts, fragments of documents, scraps of discarded drawings and paintings, even attaching paper and card to the background support with pins. These works, made intuitvely, have an almost casual, effortless effect, as well as great vitality and sophistication. His collages of recent years retained this freshness and sense of elan.
In 1963 he had a one-man exhibition at the Drian Gallery. It was the beginning of a long association, and he exhibited there regularly for over 20 years. In 1980 he was one of the artists selected by Halima Nalecz, the Drian's director, for the collection she donated to the Gdansk National Museum in Poland.
Milnes-Smith last exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1998. Ten years earlier he showed with England & Co with another artist in "Reflections of the Fifties", and later in the same year took part in "Post-War British Abstract Art" at Austin Desmond, where he had a retrospective in 1990. Throughout the 1990s he contributed to numerous group exhibitions at England & Co, the last in August 1998.
He was genuinely - and generously - interested in the work of other artists, and with his wife Monica attended gatherings and exhibitions throughout his life. He constantly looked at other artists' work, and subtly absorbed the influence of those he particularly admired. He was attracted by the work of European artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Auguste Herbin, Asger Jorn, and Alfred Manessier and among British artists, the work of Prunella Clough, Victor Pasmore, Eduardo Paolozzi and Alan Davie. Davie was one of the first artists he came to know well; other artist friends included William Scott, Fred Uhlman and F.E. MacWilliam.
John Milnes-Smith was consistent in his interests and aesthetic: late last year he was delighted when his wife gave him a small work by Prunella Clough he had admired at an exhibition at the Annely Juda Gallery. He liked to live with works by other artists, and moved drawings and small paintings around his home so he could study and see them afresh. He looked at his own works in the same way; sometimes using a mirror to see them from a different angle, putting recent pictures into old frames and hanging them on the stairs so he could see them in passing and decide on any changes. He was always revising his pictures, painting over them again and again, their surfaces growing ever richer and more textured. His own work continually evolved and developed - he painted until the end of his life.
John Milnes-Smith, artist and architect: born Laleham, Middlesex 8 August 1912; married 1939 Monica Bishop (one son, one daughter); died London 20 December 1998.Reuse content