John Minton (1917-1957)

Figures on the Beach

Oil on canvas, framed


Signed ‘Minton’ top left

Minton’s won a prize for composition with this painting in his last term at St John’s Wood School of Art in 1938. His painting had come under the influence of Giorgio de Chirico, the inventor of surrealism. In 1936 Roland Penrose had led the London International Surrealist Exhibition (where Dylan Thomas carried a cup of string around the exhibition, offering it to guests with a choice of weak of strong), and in 1937 the ‘Surrealist Invasion’ of Cornwall; Minton was following the fashions of the time.

De Chirico was famous for paintings of horses on beaches in classical surroundings, surrounded perhaps by fragments of masonry, and temples – the collision of the strange and the familiar he described as ‘uncanny’. Minton here has however made a unicorn – rather than a horse – the centrepiece, doubtless making reference to the reputation of unicorn horn as an aphrodisiac as Minton struggled with his own sexuality; it was not until after he was called up to the army during the war that he admitted being gay, being discharged on these grounds.

The unicorn is surrounded by five beautiful youths, a couple are grouped to the left, a girl plays a stringed instrument, a further youth stands upon the unicorn clutching a trumped and in the centre of the picture is a further youth, naked save for a cloth around his neck as he clutches a shield and a spear. In the foreground is a demolished statue of a woman, referring probably to Minton’s rejection of women.

The painting is referred to in Frances Spalding’s 1991 biography of John Minton on p37. Provenance: gift of the artist to his school friend Ken Lawrence, and by descent.