Kings of bohemia

By Martin Holman


An intriguing show exploring the intertwined private and artistic relationships of three men from the dark years of World War Two until 1957 comes to Falmouth.

“The greatest painting has always been made from a real love of the subject.” These words belong to painter, John Minton, who by the early 1950s was one of the most celebrated artists in Britain. A sample of his work is now at Falmouth Art Gallery where it forms part of the exhibition Unholy Trinity: Lucian Freud, John Minton and Adrian Ryan. Freud, Minton and Ryan made up a rebellious and unconventional group. The three young men in wartime London partied enthusiastically, drank heavily and mixed with dubious Soho characters.


Minton’s name is not familiar now, but his reputation as a leading painter, illustrator and stage designer was firmly established when this remarkable three-sided friendship was at its height. Minton became that rare thing in British art, popular with an audience beyond the art world. That was largely due to his characterful illustrations, especially for Elizabeth David’s ground-breaking cookery books, which helped lighten the burden of post-war austerity.


Even during the war years, when opportunities to display and sell work barely existed, Minton was the art world’s rising star. He relished the status. He exhibited paintings at London’s prominent Redfern Gallery in three consecutive years from 1943, an extraordinary accolade when public galleries were closed and most artists were either in uniform or fighting for financial survival at home.


Minton treated his subject matter in the predominant style of the years immediately after 1945, known as Neo-romanticism. His images tended to feature landscape drawn with graphic attention to the details of plants, people and place. They conveyed poetic sensibility and melancholic introspection. Colours were often naturalistic but subdued. For instance, in 1946 Minton painted a pile of rubble in a deserted London street. The houses in the picture looked tired and bomb-damaged. Perhaps the area was being cleared to build new homes, but the tone of the work lacks that note of optimism. Instead it captures the mood of exhaustion and desolation in the capital after six years of conflict.


Nonetheless, there was another side to Minton’s work. His private life was wild and exuberant. In contrast with the gaunt and distorted features that Freud highlighted in his troubling portrait of Minton in 1952, he was an avid dancer at parties and habitué of the famous private drinking club in London’s Soho called the Colony Room, where he was known as the ‘King of Bohemia’.

In 1944 he spent the summer in Cornwall and was reinvigorated by Cornish light and colour. He roamed the fields and coves, and spent evenings in the pub. “God how I love the land,” he wrote from Marazion to his friend, Judith Holman, “to stand and see it move in intricate perspective to the heat haze of the gentle horizon.” His painter’s eyes were captivated as much by the sea, “the waves breaking forever with the subtle cruelty of terrible indifference.”


Those experiences contributed to ‘lightening’ his technique. His colours brightened in the following years and his drawing style loosened, coming alive in free and agile lines. He recorded a romanticised view of the world around him on the basis of “if you can’t see, invent it”. This approach animated the exhilarating images that illustrated a travelogue about Corsica published in 1947 – an unbelievably exotic destination for post-war Britons. Elizabeth David’s books on Mediterranean cookery followed, as did stage design with John Gielgud, that lifted audience’s spirits.


Minton’s temperament swung between highs and lows. A wartime conscientious objector who was passed unfit for military service when he changed his mind about serving, he was discharged from the Pioneer Corps in 1943, the year that saw his reputation as an artist start to climb. His early fame may have left him ill-suited to the radical change in styles in the 1950s. In January 1957 he took his own life, believing himself rejected by friends and an art world with which he now felt entirely out of sympathy.


Something of that mix of personality is detected in one large canvas in this exhibition of which Minton said: “I’ve discovered that one can paint anything as long as it’s BIG.” Titled ‘Jamaican Village’, it measures over 3.5 metres across. He visited Jamaica in 1950 and was fascinated by the atmosphere of the island, its villages, scenery and what he perceived of the population’s lifestyle. The range of colours is once more heightened towards rich greens, yellows and reds.


He scrutinised the setting: the painting may be based on an actual location. There is an immense amount of observed detail – in the architecture, people’s dress and posture, and in aspects of the interior. All are described with a beguilingly languid sensuality. A light bulb shines from a covered streetlamp, so it is a night scene. In spite of the lively decorated pediments, the sharp angle of perspective and the flow of passers-by, the scene is settled and subdued. The villagers appear unhurried; some stare out of the canvas at their modern-day viewers. The community looks to be at peace with itself although the economic and political situation in the Caribbean country was often tense on the slow road to independence in 1962.


One value of Unholy Trinity is its revaluation of Minton’s career, a process that has been justifiably underway for some years. Another is to bring back to public notice the third artist in this show. Adrian Ryan remains an unfamiliar figure. In the company of Lucian Freud, who needs no introduction – and who a contemporary described as “fly, perceptive, lithe, with a hint of menace”– they made up a rebellious and unconventional group. The three young men in London (the eldest, Minton, was born in 1917 and Freud, the youngest, was just under five years his junior) partied enthusiastically, drank heavily with mutual friends like Francis Bacon and mixed wholeheartedly with characters on the fringes of the law.


They were also, according to this show’s organisers, lovers. Ryan had the most privileged background. His childhood was spent at homes in Suffolk and Cagnes-sur-Mer, and he went to Eton until expelled. Freud, the grandson of the pioneer of psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud, was expelled from Bryanston School for dropping his trousers in the town centre for a dare. After a spell learning painting, he went to sea in the Atlantic convoys until illness struck and he was discharged. At the time of his death in 2011, Freud was internationally acclaimed, rich, a Companion of Honour and holder of the Order of Merit. His paintings now sell at auction for record prices in the tens of millions of US dollars. But during the period of the works in this show, Freud was struggling to get widespread attention for his paintings.


It was in London that their paths crossed; Minton had arrived there in 1939 from grammar school in Reading. In the darkest years of the conflict friendship was eagerly sought. Ryan, also an objector, became a fire warden so knew the physical danger. Maybe all three were drawn to risk: homosexuality was a criminal offence. By all accounts, they lived by their wits.

As artists, they were highly ambitious. Paris was the centre of their artistic universe, though cut off throughout the war. When peace returned, Freud rushed there to meet the great talents of Europe. Picasso showed his new work to the relative unknown blessed with a famous name and a magnetic presence, and Freud made friends with Alberto Giacometti. The great sculptor became arguably the strongest influence on him although he would never acknowledge the impact of others, even Francis Bacon’s, on his work.

Freud was wilful and independent from the start. “All my patience has gone into my work,” he said later in life, “leaving none for my life.” This patience yielded an extraordinary feeling for the personalities of the people he painted, a depth Minton lacked in his portrayal of figures. In the years covered by Unholy Trinity, Freud’s work was hard-edged with a smooth surface. It projected considerable insight within a sensation of emotional remoteness, whether he is depicting the severed head of a cock or the daughter of the sculptor Jacob Epstein, Kitty Garman. He painted her wide-eyed and holding a rose in 1947-8 in a pose with almost Renaissance rigour and symbolic potential.


The exhibition includes a meticulous and striking drawing in pencil, ink and coloured chalks of a spiky subtropical plant. Ferns fill the foreground and behind stands a tree, its bark closely observed, against the horizon separating two bands of textured blues into sky and sea. He created this captivating view on Scilly in 1945, responding to the islands with intense examination of the climate, beaches and light. Freud was ‘one of a kind’; he loved plants and animals, and revered his grandfather not because of the revolution in psychology he brought about (for which Lucian had no time) but for his earlier work as a biologist on eels. Freud gave little away about his private life. There were several marriages: the first was to Kitty in 1948. He fathered 14 children (with unconfirmed rumours of many more) by wives and lovers.


By his death in 1998, Adrian Ryan had had many affairs, with women and men, and married three times. He was closer to Freud than to Minton who shied away from long-term commitments, preferring the thrill of casual liaisons. Freud never acknowledged his gay history so that even his biographer dismisses Ryan almost in passing as ‘an artist acquaintance’.


Yet Ryan’s importance for Freud might have meant far more than that statement implies. Whatever form their friendship took, companionship in war-torn London was invaluable. Ryan had inherited money that conceivably the constantly cash-strapped Freud benefited from, and used his wealth to buy paintings by Europe’s pre-war greats. Examples by Bonnard, Modigliani, Utrillo and Soutine hung on the walls of his Chelsea home. Freud and Minton would have seen them there when all other avenues to studying these modern masters were closed.

Ryan was probably the least ambitious artist of the three. Modest and self-effacing by nature, his paintings reflect the influence of the painters he collected. Traces of Bonnard and Soutine are visible in his still-life and landscape pictures, as if he could not find his own artistic personality. Lingering over many images in this show is the sober colour and introspective feel of Neo-Romanticism, an outlook shared by the three friends. But like the other two, Ryan’s character swung between gloom and elation. A regular visitor to Cornwall, his mood was lifted by the region’s light and climate. This exhibition includes views of Newlyn and Mousehole harbour stylistically untouched by the links Ryan made with two modernists working in St Ives, Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon. While they adapted successfully to the seismic arrival in the mid-50s of abstract expressionist painting from New York, Ryan along with Freud and Minton felt washed aside by the torrent of scale, colour and gesture.


Minton felt especially betrayed by this change of direction, above all among the students he was devoted to at the Royal College of Art. He simply did not comprehend their enthusiasm for subject-less abstraction. He believed that since “abstract art presents you with a blank canvas, surely it is up to you to put something on it”. His reputation was eclipsed by the time of his death. Freud also felt the chill wind of neglect. Like the others, Ryan stayed loyal to older, figurative traditions. He continued with the expressive strokes and vivid colour of the École de Paris as he travelled through France and delighted in the colour and texture of the landscape, portrayed with exhilaration in his triumphant canvas from 1950, Mountains behind Toulon (Campagne Orovida).


Unholy Trinity: Freud, Minton, Ryan is at Falmouth Art Gallery until 27 November 2021.

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