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1954 John Minton's Quietly Queer Portraiture

John Minton showed his portrait, Raymond Ray (Fig. 1), at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition of 1954 alongside two other works—a watercolour called Norwegian Landscape and a large-scale, multi-figure work titled The Gamblers, which showed soldiers throwing dice for Christ’s belongings after his death. The Gamblers was intended as a pastiche of Renaissance art, a large figure composition intended for public display and intended to wow the members of the Academy and secure his own election. He was never successful, largely due to homophobic prejudice and the then former Academy President Sir Alfred Munnings’ personal dislike of Minton and his art. That Minton—a bohemian and anti-authoritarian rebel—craved acceptance into the Academy is perhaps surprising, but his biographer Frances Spalding has also noted that he sought approval and a sense of belonging.1 This contradictory aspect of his personality is borne out in the way that he submitted the more distinctly queer portrait of Ray alongside The Gamblers.

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Raymond Ray was a dancer and had initially wanted nothing to do with Minton. He had been performing in the musical Guys And Dolls in London and was approached by Minton who asked if he could paint his portrait. Ray reportedly recognised Minton as one member of a crowd of drunken, rowdy people who had occupied a box in the theatre on several occasions—Minton had, indeed, returned to watch Ray more than once—and so he declined. But Minton persisted. They met again, by chance, in a club and Minton passed him a note: “I’m a married man with four children, but I want to paint you.”2

It is hard to place the tone of Minton’s outright lie in his note to Ray. In one respect, it is broadly ludicrous, and knowingly so, and could have served as a humorous and self-deprecating ice-breaker between two queer men. Minton had worked and lived alongside other queer British artists like Keith Vaughan, Robert Colquhoun, and Robert Macbryde, and moved in the same social circles as figures like Francis Bacon in London’s Soho. Minton, and probably Ray, would have known the extent to which his claim was far from the truth. However, his note also has an air of caution to it: it is a superficial reassurance of heterosexuality that might ease any of Ray’s initial anxieties (before a proper meeting when, you assume, the truth would come out) as well as avoiding suspicion from those around them.

Minton’s note worked; the two men became lovers for a brief period, Ray had his portrait painted, and they remained friends until Minton’s suicide in 1957. The covert and faltering circumstances of their meeting, however, reveals the circumstances in which queer men operated at this moment in Britain. The recommendation that homosexual acts in private between consenting adults be legalised came with the Wolfenden Report in 1957, though the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality (between two men aged over twenty-one in private) did not follow until 1967. Prior to this, queer men found themselves subject to surveillance and arrest in police crackdowns on homosexuality following the Second World War, and found themselves vilified—as evil, corrupting presences within the wider reconstructive project—by the popular press.3 As a result, caution and a degree of discretion would have been crucial for Minton and Ray at this moment.

At the same time, their meeting and relationship attests to the connections that queer men could make at this moment, and they were more than likely eased and facilitated by the bohemian and, in significant ways, queer spaces of the theatre and the art world in the post-war period.4 Minton, for his part, appears to have worked and socialised across these spaces with relative ease: he designed the costumes and scenery for John Gielgud’s 1942 production of Macbeth with fellow artist Michael Ayrton (Minton subsequently confessed his love for Ayrton, though Ayrton felt unable to act on this), and later, in 1956, he accepted a commission to design stage sets for two productions at The Royal Court Theatre in London, both written by the poet and playwright Ronald Duncan, Don Juan and The Death of Satan.5

Minton’s portrait of Ray owes a significant debt to the austere psychological portraits of Lucien Freud from the 1950s, though it avoids the often disfiguring, revelatory effect that Freud achieved through his intense focus on looking. Two years earlier, Freud had produced what now feels like a prescient portrait of the increasingly troubled Minton (Fig. 2), who appears glassy-eyed, introverted, and tired—this is some distance from the rowdy, drunken Minton that Ray had initially encountered, and which colours other anecdotes about Minton at this time. At one point in his journals, for instance, Vaughan complained of the “drunken caterwauling in the kitchen from John and his cronies while I am trying to read Gide’s journal on a Saturday evening”.6 But this portrait registers a much quieter moment between artist and sitter. The austere setting places the emphasis on the figure of Ray, who sits on a chair. He looks relaxed: his hands are clasped comfortably in this lap, he sits informally, and gazes off, slightly to one side. He is dressed casually, with dark trousers, a striking red jumper with a dark chevron pattern on it, and a white shirt underneath. There is a hint of a smile on Ray’s face that underlines the tone of comfortable intimacy here.

In terms of its style and composition, this is a relatively conservative portrait by Minton, at some distance from the slightly more abstract figuration of his other works and certainly removed from the more avant-garde figuration of the emerging School of London at this moment. This may be because Minton intended to submit the portrait to the slightly more conservative space of the Academy Summer Exhibition. At the same time, the informality of the portrait would have meant that it contrasted with the much more formal portraiture of established sitters in the same exhibition, such as Gerald Kelly’s portrait of Sir John Forsdyke, the former director and principal librarian at the British Museum. In comparison, the casual, unceremonious nature of Minton’s portrait of Ray, as well as the way in which it unassumingly registers a queer relationship prior to legalisation and in an atmosphere of prejudice, suggests that his anti-authoritarian tendencies remained, quietly, alongside his bid for acceptance at the Academy.

  1. Frances Spalding, Dance Till The Stars Come Down: A Biography of John Minton (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1991), 198–205.↩︎

  2. Spalding, Dance Till The Stars Come Down, 195.↩︎

  3. See Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918–1957 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 221–241.↩︎

  4. On Minton and Soho, see Spalding, Dance Till The Stars Come Down, 141–147.↩︎

  5. On Minton and Ayrton, see Spalding, Dance Till The Stars Come Down, 43–46 and 50–54.↩︎

  6. Keith Vaughan, Journal 32, 13 November 1948, Tate Archive, TGA 200817/1/32.↩︎

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