Royal Academy Chronicle The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769–2018 search Menu

1952 John Minton’s Academic Aspirations for The Death of Nelson (after Daniel Maclise R.A.)

“From now on I’m going to work big,” John Minton told Robert Searle in 1952. “I’ve discovered that one can paint anything so long as it’s BIG! It gives a subject an importance that little paintings don’t have.”1 At the time, Minton was not especially known for working on a large scale. In 1952, Minton’s considerable fame rested largely on his bohemian lifestyle, an extensive output as a wartime pen-and-ink “urban romantic”, book illustrator, and observer of Mediterranean coastal life. “No one mirrors his age clearer than the artist,” Minton said, and the painting he submitted that year to the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, The Death of Nelson (after Daniel Maclise R.A.)—measuring nearly two metres high and two and a half metres long—is indicative of a very public struggle with scale, subject, and acceptance (Fig. 1).2

Explore the 1952 catalogue

“The exhibition,” John Russell wrote in The Sunday Times, “contains some useful talking points [including] the large canvas in which Mr. John Minton has paraphrased, in his own sinewy idiom, Daniel Maclise’s Death of Nelson” (Fig. 2).3 Minton shows the crew of the HMS Victory painted in the round—their faces turned to the centre of the canvas—encircling the mortally wounded hero of British naval history, Horatio Nelson.

David Tindle remembered The Death of Nelson hanging, unfinished, on a wall in Minton’s studio earlier that year. “I know what you’re thinking,” Tindle recalls Minton teasing, “but it’s too late to change the floorboards now.”4 Whereas Maclise’s mural scheme for The Death of Nelson (1865) is a long frieze overflowing with activity on a single plane, Minton’s composition has a telephoto lens-like quality that compresses the singular, dramatic moment of Nelson’s demise within three-dimensional space. Far from being faulty, his “floorboards”—painted as Ruskin Spear observed like “an upright fence”—instead exaggerate the density of composition Minton could achieve through what he called a “telescoped vision”.5 This effect extends the floor beyond the foot of the frame, pitching it towards the viewer and planting us directly on the deck of the Victory.

In June 1952, with his painting hanging at Burlington House, Minton travelled to Birmingham to deliver a lecture at the city’s College of Arts and Crafts. In closing, he declared to the assembled students that the “beautifully painted still-life with fish, the quaint street corner, the Edwardian nostalgia, the subtly controlled abstract, the deftly reticent portrait” all had no place in the ambitious direction that painting needed to take.6 Instead, they should look back to epic artists such as Pierro della Francesca, Delacroix, Cézanne, and Picasso for their motivation.

As a young painter staying in Paris, Minton had made straight for Delacroix and Géricault at the Louvre, for “whose species of romantic imagination” he had a special sympathy.7 When years later in 1951 The Journal of Eugène Delacroix was published in English, Minton might have read in Hubert Wellington’s Introduction that Delacroix ran through the streets “like a madman” to his rooms after seeing Géricault’s painting The Raft of the Medusa.8 Minton could have only dreamed of such a reaction to one of his paintings. Perhaps in his effort to discover, “however slender the line”, a British tradition to rival the “confections of modern Paris” that had “jazzed up the walls of Burlington house”—as he told the Birmingham students—Minton might have drawn parallels between Géricault and the Irish artist and Academician, Daniel Maclise.9

A complex congregation of male bodies and the press of flesh could have originally attracted Minton to both Géricault and Maclise, but in finding his new bearing he was also drawing on formative experience; Maclise’s The Death of Nelson had hung in his childhood schoolroom.10 As with The Raft of the Medusa, and Maclise’s The Death of Nelson, the dying in Minton’s painting appear more alive than dead; instead, they retain much of the sensual strain of posed models. Christopher Isherwood, who saw the painting in 1961 at the Royal College of Art, commented that the “dead sailors are indeed sexy, and there is a beautiful glimpse of blue sky between tattered sails and keeling masts in the background.”11 Between light and dark, between the living and the dead, the curling smoke of battle, tattered sails, keeling masts and a single patch of clear blue sky, at the core of his painting, Minton created a dynamic tension strained between hope and despair.

It was perhaps with a hopeful eye towards the kind of large state commissions for the decoration of public architecture enjoyed by French artists, under the Direction des Beaux-Arts, and British painters like Maclise that Minton turned his brush to a more epic scale and subject. With the promise of the 1951 Festival of Britain still fresh—where Hugh Casson had commissioned him to produce a mural on the theme of exploration for the Dome of Discovery—and the ongoing post-war reconstruction, Minton’s repeated emphasis on large-scale painting in a popular, public display like the Summer Exhibition demonstrated an effort to position himself in what he believed would be the artistic legacy of the period.

Two years earlier, Minton suffered his first public quarrel with the Academy after his painting The Harbour (1949) was accepted for the Summer Exhibition. The then President of the Academy, Sir Alfred Munnings, is reported to have complained that the painting “wouldn’t even make a good poster” and that Minton was “just juggling about, copying others”. Minton, always handy with a retort, quipped that: “Sir Alfred may know a lot about horses, but the last thing he knows anything about is pictures.”12 Perhaps Munnings struck a nerve; a common criticism of Minton at the time was that he often tried too hard, and in some eyes, failed to exceed his reputation as an illustrator and designer.

Frances Spalding has noted that Minton’s decision to rework a Victorian history painting must have seemed somewhat bizarre to his students at the Royal College of Art; one even described Minton as panicked and “striking out in all directions, trying to be a painter”.13 Yet, while his friends and fellow Royal College of Art staff members Rodrigo Moynihan and Ruskin Spear had both been made ARAs in 1944, and Edward Bawden a full RA, the sought after post-nominals remained elusive for Minton. Accordingly, Carel Weight observed that each year on election day, in the Senior Common Room of the College, you would find John Minton sitting near the telephone waiting for it to ring.14

Minton would continue to exhibit his work at the Summer Exhibition each year until his death in 1957. In 1954, while touring the Mediterranean, he sent a short note and sketch of Napoleon to Nevile Wallis: “have now arrived in Elba where,” he joked, “while banished from Burlington House, I shall retire.”15

  1. R. Searle to Frances Spalding, 7 March 1989. Quoted in Frances Spalding, Dance till the Stars Come Down (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991), 169.↩︎

  2. John Minton, Speculation on the Contemporary Painter: A Lecture Delivered at the City of Birmingham College of Art and Crafts on 25 June 1952 by John Minton (Birmingham: Birmingham City of Birmingham School of Printing, 1952), 5.↩︎

  3. John Russell, “Max and Sir Alfred”, The Sunday Times, 4 May 1952, 2.↩︎

  4. Spalding, Dance till the Stars Come Down, 169.↩︎

  5. Spalding, Dance till the Stars Come Down, 169.↩︎

  6. Minton, Speculation on the Contemporary Painter, 11.↩︎

  7. John Minton to M. Ayrton, 16 February 1939. Tate Gallery Archive, 811/28-68.↩︎

  8. Hubert Wellington, “Introduction”, in The Journal of Eugène Delacroix (London: Phaidon, 1995 [1951]), xii.↩︎

  9. Leon Litvack has demonstrated that Maclise’s exposure to Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, influenced his painting of posed corpses. Leon Litvack, “Continental Art and the ‘Cockneyfied Corkonian’: German and French Influences on Daniel Maclise”, in Peter Murray (ed.), Daniel Maclise, 1806–1870: Romancing the Past (Kinsale: Gandon Editions for the Crawford Art Gallery, 2008), 200.↩︎

  10. Spalding, Dance till the Stars Come Down, 169.↩︎

  11. Christopher Isherwood, The Sixties: Diaries Volume Two, 1960–69, Katherine Bucknell (ed.) (London: Chatto & Windus, 2010), 83.↩︎

  12. “R.A. ‘Controversy’ Picture Sold”, The Manchester Guardian, 7 May 1949.↩︎

  13. Spalding, Dance till the Stars Come Down, 170.↩︎

  14. Spalding, Dance till the Stars Come Down, 200.↩︎

  15. Reproduced in Nevile Wallis, “Recalling John Minton”, The Observer, 26 October 1958,19.↩︎

Thematic categories: , , , , , , , , ,


Explore the 1952 catalogue