John Minton: Drawn from Life

A new book on the work of artist John Minton reasserts his hugely significant contribution to British illustration and key role in shaping the look of book design in the post-war years

Published by The Mainstone Press in the centenary year of John Minton’s birth, Martin Salisbury’s new book collects together the artist’s illustrations and cover designs for books, magazines and journals, placing them alongside a host of lesser-known projects for ad agencies, publishers, theatre producers and wallpaper manufacturers.

Minton was a prolific artist, yet his working life actually lasted a little over a decade. He led, Salisbury writes in his introduction, a “short, chaotic and ultimately tragic life”. Minton took his own life on January 20 1957. He was 39 years old.

Preliminary design for The Wanderer, 1947. Private collection. John Minton © The Estate of John Minton/Royal College of Art, London

As with Minton’s brief career, Salisbury’s book focuses on a relatively short-lived moment in the history of book design and illustration in the UK, which ran roughly from the end of the Second World War until the late 1950s.

Salisbury refers to the period as a “flowering” of romanticism, where artists and publishers came together to produce “a legacy of publications that are increasingly appreciated among the finest examples of the twentieth century illustrated book” – a pervasive spirit of looking back that also entered into the worlds of advertising and design.

An Affair of Love, Kay Dick, Heinemann, 1953. John Minton © The Estate of John Minton/Royal College of Art, London

After art school in London, and a brief stint in Paris, Minton joined the Pioneer Corps in 1941. Two years later he was commissioned as an infantry officer but was invalided out – the official reason, Salisbury writes, was that he endured a psychiatric breakdown having disclosed his sexuality.

The Dark Peninsula, Ernest Frost, John Lehmann, 1949. John Minton © The Estate of John Minton/Royal College of Art, London

Yet, in his short and eventful life, Minton managed to have his work recognised in seven one-man shows and a single group show and his reputation as an artist and draughtsman was formidable. “In total, he designed an impressive sixty jackets for hardback books and six paperback book covers,” Salisbury notes. “Of the latter, five were designs for John Lehmann’s influential Penguin New Writing series.”

Time Was Away, Alan Ross, John Lehmann, 1948. John Minton © The Estate of John Minton/Royal College of Art, London

While Lehmann was to become Minton’s most important client (the editor had worked at the Hogarth Press with Leonard Woolf before launching his own company), Minton was also involved with many different types of commercial projects. Ad agencies loved his work, for example, and he made posters for a range of clients such as Ealing Studios, the General Post Office and London Transport, among others.

A Book of Mediterranean Food, Elizabeth David, John Lehmann, 1950. John Minton © The Estate of John Minton/Royal College of Art, London

Minton also taught illustration – initially at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, then at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, before gaining work in the painting school at the Royal College of Art. Salisbury makes good use of a quote from a 1952 lecture that Minton gave to students at the City of Birmingham College of Arts and Crafts, on the nature and importance of ‘subject’:

“It will only happen if it is really done with love… It’s like a blacksmith having all the appropriate tools but no fire,” he says. “He can hammer away indefinitely but nothing will happen – not even abstract sculpture. For it is something to do with having a real love for the subject, having a real anxiety it will escape: not just tolerating it as a possible subject, but loving it.”

The Derelict Day, Alan Ross, John Lehmann, 1947. John Minton © The Estate of John Minton/Royal College of Art, London

This attitude was, however, unaligned with the new thinking that was slowly to nudge Minton’s work out of favour – approaches that focused on the more formal aspects of painting; on abstraction, rather than representation or narrative.

Yet it is perhaps this very difficulty he faced that brings Minton’s work to the fore today. As Salisbury notes, much of his art was made manifest through tangible objects, the placing of pictures with text within something invariably held in the hand. “The freshness and immediacy of his work, an almost innocent devotion to drawing that flows from observation, have a particular appeal today as we rediscover the haptic experience of the physical book.”

While Minton may not have had long to make his mark on the world, his decade of productivity “was brim-filled with mercurial, heartfelt and almost overwrought drawing,” Salisbury writes. This book puts the focus firmly back on the beautiful work that Minton produced over this time and on what he should rightly be remembered for.

The Snail That Climbed The Eiffel Tower and Other Work By John Minton by Martin Salisbury is published by The Mainstone Press; £35. See

Please Use Your Correct Address poster, GPO, 1957. John Minton © The Estate of John Minton/Royal College of Art, London
Cover of The Mainstone Press book on John Milton’s work, based on his cover of The Snail That Climbed the Eiffel Tower, Odo Cross, John Lehmann, 1947