This small scale oil portrait from the ‘50s is tucked away in Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Painted by John Minton, it depicts a young man named David Tindle. I first saw it about ten years ago, and it stopped me in my tracks. What was the strange, stifled emotional longing I sensed in this polite, reserved image? I welled up with tears during that first encounter, for it carried the strange shock of an unexpected reunion with an old friend.
The sitter looks a little stiff and isolated in his own world. His shoulders seem tense and his hands are awkwardly clasped in front of him. Perhaps the studio is unheated – after all, he’s got three layers of clothing on. The muddy colour palette adds to the sense of froideur between sitter and artist.
Minton belonged to a postwar generation of figurative painters who often socialized together. Their number included, famously, Bacon and Freud. He was independently wealthy but chose to divide his time between fine art and commercial art, a practice which had yet to be named ‘illustration.’
Minton is now perhaps best remembered for his illustrations on various book jackets, including the first editions of the famously pioneering Elizabeth David cookbooks. Such commercial sell-outs were teased by his fellow ‘serious’ artists like Bacon. Freud was openly dismissive of his skills as a portrait artist.
You’re unlikely nowadays to see Minton canvases on display in the major London art galleries. He was collected by the Tate, but their holdings of his work rest in the warehouses, far from public view. You might be more lucky in regional galleries. My home town, Bournemouth, used to display a Minton portrait of a chap called Norman Bowler.
This portrait of Bowler, painted at a larger scale, seems less engaging and enigmatic somehow. Yet as a teenager the picture still fascinated me on account of the identity of the sitter.
Norman Bowler was a body-builder in the 1950s, famously good-looking. Minton clearly took a shine to him, and featured him in several artworks. He married Minton’s best friend Henrietta Moraes, one of the most notorious figures in Soho society of that period. She was a muse to Francis Bacon, a wildly promiscuous good-time girl who later descended into alcoholism.
Henrietta’s marriage to Bowler was shortlived. He later went into acting, eventually being cast as patriarch Frank Tate on Emmerdale in the early 90s. You couldn’t make it up. I love it when the world of high art car-crashes with the world of light entertainment.
So who was David Tindle, the sitter in my Chichester portrait?
In the original 2011 version of this blogpost, on my old blog, I had nothing but supposition to go on. There was an 85 year old Royal Academician who shared his name, so maybe that was him, I wondered. The blogpost garnered some response. David’s daughter Saskia Tindle messaged me to confirm that her artist father was indeed Minton’s protégé and muse in the 50s. Another friendly message pointed me to a contemporaneous self portrait by David in the Ruth Borchard collection.
I’m delighted to know that David Tindle is going strong, and may even be enjoying a late career re-evaluation. Huddersfield art gallery is currently (til Feb 4th 2017) running a small scale restrospective of his work. In a five star review for the Guardian, Rachel Cooke calls it ‘one of the loveliest small exhibitions you’re likely to see this side of Brexit’.
Minton, it seems, wasn’t quite so fortunate. There’s no information to tell me the nature of his link with Tindle, but there is plenty of stuff out there to suggest that Minton (a gay man at a time, let us not forget, when it was still illegal) often suffered the pain of unrequited love. He was apt to give his heart away to unsuitable, or heterosexual, men and spend large sums of money on people he liked, only for them to disppoint him.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I first saw happened upon this portrait. My own emotional response was natural and uninformed by Minton’s biography, but for me it seems to fit. The sitter seems detached, somehow; admired and (with those big eyes) even idealized by Minton – yet utterly lost to him.
In his book on Francis Bacon, Daniel Farson writes of the final heartbreak in the artists life. In 1957 Minton’s best friend Henrietta Moraes won the heart of a man he was in love with – she who had also been married to the aforementioned Norman Bowler. In the words of Julian Maclaren Ross he was emotionally ‘torn to pieces by tiny marmosets’ and, perhaps in a cry for help gone wrong, took an overdose of sleeping pills and died.