John Minton at Tate Britain, London

Cornish Boy at a Window 1948, a striking portrait by John Minton, is on loan to Tate Britain for the exhibition Queer British Art 1861–1967 from 5 April until 1 October.

Cornish Boy at a Window

© Estate of the Artist

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This major exhibition dedicated to queer British art, celebrating the works of LGBT artists over 100 years between 1861 and 1967, also marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of male homosexuality in England and Wales. A gay artist who lived life to the full, John Minton is described by his biographer Frances Spalding as being able to 'make bright the dullest day'.

This portrait was one of several paintings on a Cornish theme painted by Minton in 1948. His subject was Eric Verrico, an Italian student and occasional life model who Minton taught at Camberwell School of Arts in London. Described by Spalding as having 'astonishingly good looks', Verrico was one of a group of attractive young men that hung round Minton at Camberwell known as 'Johnny's Circus'. Minton was undoubtedly drawn to the younger man, taking him for meals at Lyons cafe. The portrait of Verrico was based on drawings that Minton made on a visit to Mevagissey in Cornwall in 1948 with Verrico and Bobby Hunt – another of his male acolytes from Camberwell. Spalding describes how later in the year, the relationship between Minton and Verrico appears to have cooled with Minton describing him as 'Dimbulb Verrico' who has 'taken out a licence to marry his motorbike'. A year later, Verrico was conscripted to the RAF in 1949, changing his name to Verrier, to avoid anti-Italian sentiment. Around this time he broke off his friendship with Minton, which greatly upset the artist.

The angular treatment of Verrico's body and head, combined with his dark facial features, shows some resemblance to the modelling of figures in Picasso's early paintings. Although Verrico's Mediterranean appearance is indicated by his brown tanned skin and black hair, his muscular build and strong arms suggest that Minton portrayed him in the guise of a Cornish fisherman, although perhaps, more as a form of athletic 'pin-up' than a documentary image. Hanging on the wall above him are glass globe fishing floats, and, through the window behind, a view of fishing boats anchored in the harbour.

As the central focus of the work, Verrico's light shirt, painted in abstract tones of pale greens, blues and yellows, draws immediate attention. A similar palette of light colours is used to depict the bright walls of the houses outside. The contrast between his shirt and dark skin accentuates Verrico amid the room's sombre colours. Minton described his approach to arranging and painting compositions in a newspaper article of 1950:

Choose something with very large objects in it… Have this main feature in the middle then build your landscape round it. Every picture should have some such centre of interest, some definite focal point.

Although Minton is often associated with the bohemian art scene of Soho London, he relished the opportunity to discover new places and subjects. Cornwall was one such place that he visited during the late 1940s to early 1950s, along with visits to Corsica, Spain, the West Indies and Morocco.

After studying at St John's Wood School of Art from 1935 to 1938, John Minton lived briefly in Paris, where he was influenced by French Neo-Romanticism (the deep shadows, crumbling walls and ruined vistas he saw in their paintings) and the work of Picasso. Despite the brevity of his career, he produced a considerable body of work, having eight solo exhibitions between 1945 and 1956. His book and advertising illustrations were also characteristic designs of the early 1950s. Until his death he taught at the Camberwell and Central Schools of Art and the Royal College of Art in London, where he was remembered as an inspiring teacher. Disillusioned by the art world's increasing focus on abstract art in the mid 1950s, he committed suicide at the age of 40. 

Spalding, F.(2005), John Minton: Dance Till the Stars Come Down, Lund Humphries

Further information

Queer British Art 1861–1967
Tate Britain
Millbank, London, SW1P 4RG

Telephone: +44(0)20 7887 8888
Email: ticketing@tate.org.uk