Mark was a teenager when he first saw Johnny across a room. He was immediately struck by him, mesmerised even, by Johnny’s long face, his wide eyes, their look of melancholy. It was the start of an obsession that has continued throughout Mark’s life.
Mark is Mark Gatiss – actor, writer, Whovian, Holmesian, Renaissance polymath. Johnny is the painter John Minton. Who? Well, that’s kind of the point. At one time, Minton was more famous than his contemporaries Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud – now he is largely forgotten. Gatiss wants the world to unforget, to show how Minton is still important and to celebrate his work. “It’s time to invite Johnny back to the party that he left all too soon,” he says.
Minton killed himself in 1957, aged 39. The room Mark first saw him across was in the National Portrait Gallery; he was looking at – and falling for – Johnny’s self-portrait. He follows in Minton’s footsteps and stalks him to Soho, where Gatiss too gravitated on coming to London, “naturally – or unnaturally, because of its reputation for decadence, naughtiness”. They would probably have known each other if Gatiss had arrived in Soho half a century earlier.
He meets some of the people who knew Minton, people who were part of the same bohemian scene – artists, students, muses and sitters. They include Bridget Riley and Peter Blake, and a former bodybuilder named Spencer Churchill, who turns out to be the subject of the Minton sketch that Gatiss owns. I suppose that’s one good thing about Minton being largely forgotten: you don’t have to be an oligarch or an oil sheikh to get your hands on one.
Gatiss drifts down to what were London’s docks, where – in the blitzed wartime wasteland – Minton found romanticism. He pursues him to Cornwall, where Minton escaped from the heady excess of the capital to find new colour. Also to Corsica, although sadly not to Jamaica (a BBC Four budget doesn’t stretch that far, apparently.) And he examines the illustrations that made Minton so sought-after and celebrated, such as the ones on Elizabeth David’s cookbooks. I remember one my mum had: French Country Cooking, I think. Maybe you too knew Minton, without knowing that you did.
But as much as it is about celebrating the work and looking at the pictures, it is about the man behind them. Gatiss plunges headlong into his hero’s world. In Minton’s Notting Hill studio, he imagines how it might have been – Dylan Thomas passed out in an armchair, Freud sneaking in with a pretty model, Johnny himself dancing a highland jig over a pair of crossed umbrellas.
Listening to a recording of Minton – crackly and clipped – is, for Gatiss, like “reaching back into the past and holding his hand”. Which, given a Tardis, is surely what he would do. In Corsica, there pretty much is a Tardis. Or at least a monochrome bus, which Gatiss is suddenly riding through the hills in 1947. Every time it stops, he hops off with his sketchbook, as Minton did, to capture a view (is there no end to this man’s talents?). He has actually become Minton.
In his haunting, waif-like self-portraits, Gatiss detects something else going on, “a familiar longing, a sort of ache”. In a deeply repressive age, Minton’s sexual awakening came about in the wartime blackout with sailors down by the docks. He became an early champion of gay rights, splendidly taking on Marie Stopes on the letters page of the Listener in 1950, 17 years before the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales.
Gatiss speaks so well about Minton’s work, his struggles between modernism and conservatism, the commercial and the artistic, and how he eventually fell out of favour. Gatiss speaks not as an art historian but as an informed superfan, one who truly gets him. It is this identification with the subject that makes this more than an informed documentary about an artist you (OK, I) have never heard of. It is a personal, poignant, melancholy portrait, with moments of optimism and joy. A bit like that picture of – and by – Johnny that Mark first fell in love with.
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