In April 1956 John Minton left the Painting School of the Royal College of Art, London, where he had taught since 1948, for one year's unpaid leave. His departure had been precipitated by a crisis of confidence in his own ability as a painter and teacher, and profound doubts about the relevance of painting in the modern world. Shortly after leaving the college he accepted a commission to design stage sets for two productions at The Royal Court Theatre, London, Don Juan and The Death of Satan both written by Ronald Duncan. While working at the theatre, Minton met Kevin Maybury, an Australian carpenter, who was working in the scenery department. A relationship developed and by the winter Maybury had moved into 9 Apollo Place, Minton's house in Chelsea. In a letter to the theatre designer Jocelyn Herbert, Minton described Maybury as 'that presbyterian "Australian", who regards all my activities with Severe Criticism' (quoted in Spalding, p.224).
Although Minton made several drawings of Maybury, this is the only painting he is known to have done of him. The portrait, which was probably painted at Apollo Place or at the workshop in The Royal Court during the summer of 1956, shows Maybury surrounded by the tools of his trade: at his feet are a saw and a set square, in his hands a collapsible ruler, and behind him a step ladder. The angularity of these tools adds to the profusion of geometric forms that dominate the painting. In conjunction with these forms is a treatment of pictorial space that is slightly reminiscent of the spatial complexities found in Cubism. The easel in the foreground, which runs all the way up the right side of the painting, seems almost to be contiguous with the two dimensional plane of the canvas surface. This motif combined with the tilted-up floor compresses the spatial depth of the painting while the window in the top right seems to open it up again. The mirror directly to the right of Maybury, rendered in the dull greys of analytic Cubism, complicates the spatial organisation still further.
In the midst of this elaborate spatial arrangement is the informally dressed and posed figure of Maybury. Frances Spalding has suggested that he appears to be imprisoned within the matrix of geometric shapes. She argues that this, with the spatial irregularities of the painting, creates a 'brittle unease' reminiscent of Alberto Giacometti's (1901-1966) postwar figure paintings. Maybury's averted gaze seems to support this reading.
Frances Spalding, Dance till the Stars Come Down, London 1991, reproduced, pl.XXII (colour)
John Minton:1917-1957. A Selective Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Oriel 31, Davies Memorial Gallery, Newtown 1993, reproduced p.40, cat.no.30 (colour)