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History of illustration -John Minton

Locked in the cage of time, his only crime was being born in a time when he wasn’t free to love with his art or nor with his heart.

(c) Juliet Thorp, Collection Administrator; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The life of John Minton

Known at the peak of his career as a gifted, energetic and a well-travelled artist, illustrator, draftsman and designer, said to be more famous than Fracis Bacon and Luican Freud at that time. However by the mid 1950s Minton lost his way and career started a downward slope, he slid into self-doubt and turned to alcohol and slowly stopped painting, his life cut short at the age of only 39 as Minton committed suicide.

Francis John Minton was born on the 25th December 1917 in Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire, England he was the middle son of three.

Minton was to study at St John’s wood school of art in London, it was here he met his lifelong friend Michael Ayrton, it was he who greatly influenced him along with the style of Berman, Tchelitchew and neoromanticism, In the years 1936-1938 he shared a studio with Ayrton in Paris.  

During the second world war, Minton was first classed as a conscientious objector however later in 1941 he joined the pioneer coups, in 1942 alongside Ayrton he worked on John Gielguds production of Macbeth, they designed the costumes and scenery. In 1943 he was commissioned in the army however the same year he was discharged on medical grounds.

It was post war that Minton found his “fame” in London and traveling to Corsica.
He was also teacher for the arts at

  • Teacher at Camberwell school of art 1943-1947
  • Central school of arts and crafts 1947-1948
  • The Royal College of Art 1948 – 1956  

Sadly the good times wasn’t to last, the arrival of a new movement and the rise of popularity in artists like Rothko and Pollock, Minton found himself lost, his decline came about in the mids 50s, Minton became a depressed alcoholic, full of self doubt and suffering extreme mood swings, facing rejection in his art, from his students he stopped painting and at the age of 39 John Minton died by committing suicide.

I really cannot help but feel he would have been more accepted today and been allowed to explore not only his art but who he was fully. 

My thoughts

“Every living person has certain feelings about the world around him. It is these feelings, common to all men, which are the raw materials of the artist’s inspiration. This he must ‘translate’, into the structure of an art form, whether music, poetry or painting. The problem of the painter is this ‘translation’; that is, he has to create some arrangement of shape, line and colour which convey the idea or the emotion which moved him to paint this particular picture.”

John Minton

John Minton work really did appeal to me, these following pieces that spoke to me.

  • Blitzed city with self portrait 1941 – Oil on board
  • The docklands Paintings/Wapping of John Minton 1941
  • Children by the sea 1945 – Oil on Canvas
  • Fish in a Glass Tank 1949 – Oil on canvas
  • Corte, Corsica 1947 – pen and ink on paper
  • Stormy Day 1949 – Oil on canvas  
  • Jamaican landcape 1952 – Oil on Canvas

John Minton designed an impressive amount of jacket for books in time, a couple really stood out to me.

  • Time Wars AWAY – A notebook in Corsica by Alan Ross and John Minton
    1948 John Minton © the estate of John Minton/Royal College of Art, London (As below)
  • A book of Mediterranean food by Elizabeth David

The idea to possibly explore the option of having haunting eyes and the full jacket cover similar to Time Wars away, is that possible ?

His early work pre and wartime being very dark and gloomy, Post war and as he traveled the world, bright colours made its way into his works.
His work is very emotional, you can almost feel Minton’s emotional state as he creates.

It is the haunting eyes I still really wanted to really mirror and this is the route I honestly wanted to explore and find if possible to take an early work of Minton and and placed in an illustration style that he is known for.
I like to really explore artists early work, as the way I see it, is that is is the start, the start of something new and exiting! From that start artist grow, learns and in many ways if just look at the later work it feels like skipping chapters in a book, so for me to get a true mindset of an artist work you start at the beginning.

At this stage I have dismissed the previous idea completely of creating a piece that’s to be inspired by Minton jungle landscapes, While this has originally had interested me with the bright colours, his background and use of shapes it isn’t the direction I’m aiming to explore.
It is a huge tug of war between his early 40s paintings and his post war book jackets. I have a huge desire to explore both fully, is it something I could come back to later or revisit with another project?

In the end the more emotional connection to early 40s that I could most relate to and use in a “story” of my own.

Creating in the style of John Minton

My first rough sketches and colour exploration
Sketchbook A4 portrait

Firstly I created some early sketches in my sketchbook, had a play with different layouts.
I tested the waters with acrylics in my sketchbook a simple portrait image roughly around what I desire to create but not much thought to overall look.

I knew the layout needed work and acrylic wasn’t going to give me the desired vibe of Minton’s work I’m after.


I now faced a problem with the overall exercise, the illustration of Minton choices are oil on canvas, ink and also the printing method of lithography.
Oils and lithography not really used in illustrations today as much “easier” and faster ways out there today, do not get me wrong there is a timeless beauty in oils, so wouldn’t not be to say it is old fashioned just time consuming in terms of the world of illustration.
As for the method of Lithography in terms of printing it is a method that would always have a place just like the smell of books in the age of e-books, you can still very much have lithography printing today, As well as some specialized printer you can mimic the style with digital and printers and there is a home kitchen tools to create this effect as well. I do not have the tool as of now to be able to recreate and from my understanding the images first was created in pen/ink on paper/gouache first before being made print ready.
So I will be aiming down the gouache route maybe try to include brush strokes that mimic oils the best I can.

Testing using gouache and grey paper
Paper – Gray toned/ acid free 80lb 9x12in / 22.9×30.5cm

When I had looked into lithography / offset printing I found the whole progress very interesting, I will be honest enough to state I did not understand very well at first how it worked.
I watched a few videos and a bit of reading before I became enlightened in how it may work, hoping I understand.
I’ve bookmarked this page I came across for future reference as covers the history of printing in stages. This research stage was more for my personal understanding of lithography.

While putting together all the information together, my sketches have taken to take a direction.
I was creating images based mainly on relating the emotion I felt being bullied at school to the feeling I relate to looking at Minton 1941 work. I did tried a few times to bring in other options and explore another area but guess could say I was emotionally driven by the piece now.

First I wanted to test colours and gouache, I opted gray toned paper, being a little worried as not really a wet medium paper I needed to experiment, the choice of paper I felt may help with the overall vibe of the finished image, to stop it looking too bright and hopeful.
I kept the gouache a thicker consistency to help with the “feel” of oil, limited over blending, keeping the colours cool, muted and dull.

Possible idea for a final piece, liking a thumbnail in my sketchbook and the colours of the test page / study of eyes I went on to complete this piece.

Created using gouache on greyed paper and finished with black India Ink
Paper – Gray toned/ acid free 80lb 9x12in / 22.9×30.5cm

Overall I do like this piece, I think it works nicely with the eye study / colour study. Almost like the two are part of a series and can link to the eye/colour study.
I do have some worries
Does it look like a Zombie highschool ?
Did I cover the exercise main objective ?
Is the message clear ?
Can viewers relate this image to the work of John Minton ?


While I did intend this to be the “final” piece in this exercise, I honestly wasn’t happy. For once I don’t think was my desire to be perfect but more I didn’t feel I for filled the exercise fully in an illustrated sense.
I think I’ve explored, created a piece I wanted, in a method I wanted.
However its is somewhat lacking, yes, it could be a page in a book, or even an animation still shot, with work it could be an anti – bullying poster.
In the exercise it feels like “just” a piece of artwork inspired by John Milton, the lack of purpose in the finished piece meant I felt I’ve missed the mark. So taking what I’ve learnt so far I set about creating something.
Thinking back to the desire to create a book jacket, I set up a template based on a full book jacket. Not letting my work go to waste I was going to design a book cover based on the image and its mood/vibe.
Basing on a study around “Times wars away” I wanted to use ink and knowing that I wanted to use quite muted colours, wanting also the freedom to create the mood than worry on the tools I’m using I opted for alcohol markers, bleed proof paper and bombai black ink.
I’m glad I did this as it made me study the image in closer detail, and I discovered Minton use of white and lines to draw the attention of the eyes to some parts such as the guy on the boat and the title.
At first creating this I was a bit tense and fully aware that I needed my work to be less controlled and in other worse colour outside the lines.

This piece was more fun, I would need realistic more practice in style to even come anything close to Minton’s work.
Something could explore in a future project or personal project is the colour palette used in “times war away”.
While keen to use the greeny yellows, green and pop of the royal blue I didn’t think it suited the plans I had for the book jacket design.

original scan with small edits to have the “truer” colour
Original on A4 20lb bleedproof marker paper

First is the original scan, while I edited the scan I found some areas suffered lost of detail and colour fade.
I opened up in photoshop and edited a little colour settings (Above)

Still I find the work lacking and the girl fades a bit into background so in photoshop I applied some editing and light colour changes and fix some areas.
I felt much happier with it over all, bit worried as I’m using photoshop which we know wasn’t a thing in the 50s and would be a good few years before digital enhancement would make it way to illustrated work.

OCA 0001
Edited to make colours have more depth and contrast
Edited using Adobe Photoshop

So I have this piece, I still wanted to relate more to Minton’s work.
So I set about exploring the colour palette of his work.

While doing this I was mainly using colour replace and I feel I unintentionally started the piece looking more jagged sharp like that of lithography / offset printing effect, least I thought so…
So I experimented with this effect. (Below)

OCA 0001 v2

I like the finished version, it has a feel of John Minton while still being “me”

As I come to the closing thoughts on John Minton part 1 of this exercise
I liked the image, it is different from what I normally do, I feel it covered my thought with the feelings / eyes / textures and vibes I aimed for.

I would like to in the future explore more traditional printing methods of the time if possible.

After my research and my direction in the finished piece I watched “john Minton, the lost man of the British Art” this was intentional to do so after 80%/90% of my research and work direction.
Main reason for this is I didn’t want to be “given” to me all the research, I didn’t want the feeling of watching the movie and not read the book.
and yes, I was influenced by this view on Minton, If I had watched this first I may have started with the brighter colours at the height of Minton career.

I do stand by my choice of more early in Minton career for research and creating into something that he is known more for, I do this for a couple of reason I always like to look at the artist “starting” point and follow though on their journey to the end. Growth of such artist really fascinates me.
The fact that he commissioned an image by fraud which had similar haunting eyes as his early war art and then finally while my thoughts had already been almost a circle with his work, his last painting that he gave away made me cry honestly.

The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists, 01/2009
Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art (2 ed.)

2 thoughts on “History of illustration -John Minton

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