Thursday, 13 October 2011

Portraits 6/6: Minton and David Tindle

My last portrait choice is entirely personal, a picture of a sitter about whom I know relatively little. It’s a small scale oil portrait from the 1950s by John Minton, depicting a young man called David Tindle – and it hangs in the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.

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.

Minton belonged to a postwar generation of figurative painters who sometimes socialized together – their number included, famously, Bacon and Freud. He was independently wealthy, but chose to divide his time between fine art and commercial art, a practice which had yet to be named ‘illustration.’

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.

Her marriage to Bowler was shortlived and he later went into acting – eventually being cast as patriarch Frank Tate on Emmerdale in the early 90s. You couldn’t make it up.

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.


  1. this portrait hypnotized me literally.
    what a sad ending for Minton.

    you ought to check out these portraits Peter:
    I really loved the lines, never seen any that express such beauty and yet so strong. I would love to know your point of view on them.

  2. Interesting to see these - I think I prefer the line drawings in general here, the first one of the page there is really fantastic, such a rare economy of expression. Been reading his biography online and he seems like an fascinating character!

  3. Hiya. I've just seen a self-portrait of David Tindle (aged 19) in a gallery. He's a painter. Hope this helps

  4. Thanks so much for letting me know about that - what an interesting collection, I had no idea it existed! And so amazing to see how the sitter in the portrait that fascinated me represented himself in paint. Thank you!

  5. This is a portrait of my father. Fellow of the Royal Academy. Was head of the Ruskin Art school at Oxford University for a while in the 80's. Born in Hudersfield in 1932. Lives now in Italy. Johnny Minton was a very dear freind of his and I remember him speaking often of him when I was a child.

  6. Hi Saskia, Thanks so much for commenting - I'm obviously delighted to learn more about the sitter of this portrait which moved me so much! I hope I can also acquaint myself a bit more with your father's artwork in the future. All the very best.

  7. Your research is correct. David Tindle is the same Royal Academician you suspected.

    1. Whoops! I have just read Saskia Tindle's confirmation of same... Apologies!