The Auto-Erotic Device and the Whisky Bottle

Peter Campbell

  • Dance till the stars come down by Frances Spalding
    Hodder, 271 pp, £25.00, May 1991, ISBN 0 340 48555 8
  • Keith Vaughan by Malcolm Yorke
    Constable, 288 pp, £25.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 09 469780 9

John Minton’s face is familiar – if not from the self-portrait now in the National Portrait Gallery, then from the likeness he commissioned from Lucian Freud and bequeathed to the Royal College of Art. It is very long, large-eyed, hollow-cheeked, with a receding chin and dark tousled hair. Photographs suggest that the self-portrait is a better physical likeness; the truth about his emotional state seems to lie with Lucian Freud. The manic side of his personality shows only in photographs, where the mouth stretches into a toothy grin. His work, once famous, is now probably best remembered by those who saw it when it first appeared in Penguin New Writing, or on book jackets and in magazines.

Frances Spalding’s biography gives us the life with too many adjectives but an abundance of facts and first-hand accounts. She is tentative about the value of the work, which is understandable, and about the man, which seems unkind. The facts are not so remarkable as to be worth exhuming for their own sake; without generous feeling for him or for what he made, the biographer becomes voyeur.

Minton was one of the victims of Soho-Fitzrovia, and one of its stars. In the sober Nineties it seems to be difficult to look back with any degree of enthusiasm, and without condescension, to the last English Bohemia, in which Minton was far from being the only considerable talent drinking itself to death. The ‘Roberts’ (Colquhoun and MacBryde) were there beside him; Dylan Thomas was boozing in the same pubs. Art is not made in that spirit any more. The notion that all things are a gamble, that candles should be burnt at both ends, that poverty is often art’s handmaid and scrounging talent’s privilege does not come to your mind these days as you walk up Cork Street. And yet Soho’s survivors – Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, even Jeffrey Bernard to name three who appear quite often in Spalding’s book – show what can be won by sticking to your line. What they do now and did then is more interesting than what a lot of people who thought they were overtaking them in the years between have managed.

Reading the funny letters Minton wrote, and applying their tone of voice to the things people who knew him remember, makes it clear why he had many friends, and why his downward spiral into alcoholism, and depressions which were exacerbated by unsatisfactory love affairs, saddened them. There may even be a little guilt in it. Every time and place has its characteristic luxuries. In Minton’s Soho they were champagne and taxis. Minton was always better off than most of his friends, and sometimes very much richer (the money came from department stores, not china); he bought his own good times, which often meant buying them for other people as well. It would make no sense to ask who among the taxiloads of sailors, students, painters, writers and boozers he transported from bar to bar were the exploiters and who the exploited, but, as the quotations about good times and good fun fade into descriptions of Minton’s bad times, the question ‘could we, should we, have done something?’ seems to lie about in the memoirs of his friends.

You are not logged in