My feelings towards the picture can’t exactly be summed up in words; for me it conveys an awkward sense of tenderness and fragile beauty and I’m not ashamed to say that, the first time I saw it in the flesh, I literally welled up with tears – like it was the ghost of a past encounter, or an unexpected reminder of an old friend I somehow knew and understood.
It seems to have been painted with real love – and perhaps longing. The sitter looks a little stiff and isolated in his own world - his shoulders tense and his hands awkwardly clasped in front of him. Perhaps the studio is unheated - he hasn’t removed or unbuttoned his coat.
He is now perhaps best remembered for his illustrations on various book jackets, including the first editions of the famously pioneering Elizabeth David cookbooks. Such commercial sell-outs were teased by his fellow ‘serious’ artists like Bacon.
You’re unlikely these days to see Minton canvases on display in the major London art galleries (he was collected by the Tate but their holdings of his work now rest in the warehouses, far from public view). You might be more lucky in regional galleries like Chichester – or indeed in my home town Bournemouth, whose gallery possess a portrait of a chap called Norman Bowler.
This portrait of Bowler, at a larger scale and more thinly painted, seems rather less enigmatic somehow – but still of interest to me on account of the identity of the sitter. I love it when the world of high art car-crashes with the world of light entertainment, and this is an example.
Norman Bowler was a body-builder in the 1950s, famously good-looking. Minton clearly took a shine to him, for he featured in several artworks. He married Minton’s best friend Henrietta Moraes - one of the most notorious figures in Soho society of that period. She was a muse to Francis Bacon, a wildly promiscuous good-time girl who descended into alcoholism.
I’ve looked up the sitter David Tindle and, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I have a suspicion that he is still alive. There is a Royal Academician, now in his 80s, who bears the same name. The dates fit, he would have been 20 at the time of this portrait. I hope it’s the same chap, I’d be glad to know that his story had a happy ending.
Minton, it seems, wasn’t quite so fortunate. There’s no information to tell me the nature of his link with Tindle, but there is plenty of stuff out there to suggest that Minton (a gay man at a time, let us not forget, when it was still illegal) often suffered the pain of unrequited love. He was apt to give his heart away to unsuitable, or heterosexual, men and spend large sums of money on people he liked, only for them to disppoint him.
I didn’t know any of this when I first saw the portrait. My own emotional response was natural and uninformed by Minton’s biography – yet it seems to fit. The sitter seems detached, somehow; admired and (with those big eyes) even idealized by Minton - yet utterly lost to him.
In his book on Francis Bacon, Daniel Farson writes of the final heartbreak in the artists life. In 1957 Minton’s best friend Henrietta Moraes won the heart of a man he was in love with - she who had also been married to the aforementioned Norman Bowler. In the words of Julian Maclaren Ross he was emotionally ‘torn to pieces by tiny marmosets’ and, perhaps in a cry for help gone wrong, took an overdose of sleeping pills and died.