‘Morning breaks early in Jamaica and early the sun’s golden trumpet plays across the harbor where the bananas have been loaded all night, making the headland sharply precise against the sea’s calm. Small fishing canoes move slowly out to sea; the horizon of blue wires strung across the bay quivers, curves into space and distance. Soon the hard metal languor of noon devours the early light.’
According to Frances Spalding, the artist’s biographer, by 1950 Minton had established himself as ‘one of the best known living artists in England, as yet uneclipsed by Pasmore, Bacon or Freud.’ As a result of an inheritance, from 1949 onwards Minton was able to travel widely, which inspired new subject matter for his work and enriched his palette. In the summer of 1950 he toured France in his friend Ricky Stride’s new convertible, along with Stride’s friend Roy Vincent. On returning, Minton and Stride spent a short time back in London, before travelling on September 9th 1950 by banana boat to the West Indies – a trip the pair had booked earlier, in May. In a letter to his friend Martyn Goff sent prior to their departure, the artist enthused, ‘I shall totter like a decaying bastion of English culture, right out of Somerset Maugham, rum-soaked and crumpled from bar to bar trying to remember What It Was All About.’
After a two week journey, the pair docked at Kingston, the capital and main port of Jamaica, before spending the first month of their trip in the nearby neighbourhood of Half Way Tree. Minton quickly became aware that there was a stark dichotomy playing out on the island. In Pictures of Jamaica, an article penned by the artist for the travel section of Vogue, November 1951, he explained that whilst Jamaica, with its luxury pleasure beaches, sunsets and hospitality, had a ‘travel folder romanticism’, ‘beneath this surface life, the life of the island, the inner conflict of politics, race, wealth, poverty and unemployment, made acute by the crumbling away of colonial life which is forever past, goes on: for the island, like everywhere else, faces the problem of its equilibrium in a mad world.’
From Half Way Tree Minton and Stride crossed the island to stay with Captain Peter Blagrove and his wife Alice – whom they had met on the journey – on their spice plantation, before Minton travelled on alone to Ocho Rios, to see his friend Paul (‘Odo’) Cross and his partner Angus Wilson . Whereas in France Minton produced relatively few sketches, in Jamaica, fascinated by his surroundings, he filled numerous sketch books with watercolours and ‘small drawings of things that hold the eye’. For an artist who once declared, ‘As a traveler making drawings from which to make paintings, I am attracted to places where there is a strong individual flavor of climate and living,’ it is no wonder that the island held such appeal. The works he made here went on to form the basis for a number of paintings worked up at home in the months following his return in December, many of which were executed in acid lemon yellows, magentas and viridians – a palette inspired by the destination.
Thirty-eight watercolours of Jamaica featured in Minton’s show at the Lefevre Gallery in September 1951, alongside four oils, including Fishing Canoe and Banana Plantation. The glowing tropical colour, the jagged patterns created by palms and the listless figures in streets and bars built towards a mood of heavy sadness and potential violence. The Manchester Guardian critic noticed that Minton’s figures were becoming less formalized and that he had ‘fastened on the banana tree as tightly as Sutherland had clasped the more uncomfortable thorn-tree to his bosom.’ Jamaican material also appeared in the decoration he did, with help from others, for the Festival of Britain’s Dome of Discovery. Meanwhile, a major oil titled Jamaican Landscape by Minton was included in the Arts Council exhibition 60 paintings for ’51 and the large-scale work Jamaican Village featured at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition in the same year.
The present drawing, dated 1952, was made some time after Minton had returned from Jamaica, suggesting that the island was continuing to fascinate him and inspire new work. In this relatively small composition, the artist has managed to incorporate a high level of detail using a range of mark making – from delicate, thin lines, to cross-hatching, to areas of pooling ink. Here we see several of the artist’s key ‘Jamaica motifs’ – the banana tree, the fishing canoe and the beach - all of which combine to create an air of the exotic. In the lower right of the sheet, a lone male figure lies slumped asleep, prompting the viewer to question whether this idyllic, dream-like scene might be a figure of either the subject or artist’s imagination. Despite the fact that Minton has described Jamaica as ‘strange,’ ‘haunting’ and ‘full of sadness,’ the present work offers an alternative image. Here, the secluded beach, lush vegetation and inclusion of the semi-nude young man give the picture an unmistakable erotic undertone. Indeed, one can almost feel the sticky heat and smell the ripe bananas which dangle temptingly in the centre of the composition.
1 The artist cited in ‘Pictures of Jamaica,’ Vogue, November 1951, Conde Nast Publications Ltd, London, p132
2 Frances Spalding, Dance Till the Stars Come Down: a biography of John Minton, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1991, p151
3 Cited in Spalding, Ibid, p153
N.B.: Although Minton’s words conjure a kind of romantic vision of the impending trip, they are also tinged with melancholy. By describing himself as ‘a decaying bastion of English culture,’ Minton offers an insight as to how he felt about his standing on the international art scene at this particular moment. Despite outwardly personifying success, this was, in fact, a time in which he began to see himself and his fellow ‘neo-romantics’ being sidelined in favour of the prevailing trend of abstract art which had arrived in England from America.
4 Vogue, Ibid, p132
5 Vogue, Ibid, p134
6 Cross (a former lover of Cedric Morris) was a wealthy ex-ballet dancer, Wilson was a plant photographer
7 Spalding, Ibid, p152
8 The artist in ‘Travel Notes,’ World Review, July 1950, cited in Spalding, Ibid, p152
9 Spalding, ibid, p154-5
10 Vogue, Ibid, p134