By Gerard Hastings
During the 1940s Vaughan and Minton became close friends. They went out drinking together in Soho and the Café Royal with Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, met up at Peter Watson’s flat and were both employed by John Lehmann to illustrate a series of books. They visited Cornwall together to make paintings and drawings and they shared a great enthusiasm for the ballet. Both men were conscientious objectors; Vaughan served in the Non-Combatant Corps and Minton entered the Pioneer Corps. While based in Yorskshire Vaughan kept their friendship alive by writing letters. Two of these survive:
Keith Vaughan to John Minton: January 7, 1945
I seem to grow a thick protective rind of inactivity and routine habit. Perhaps it is all part of the awful deflating anti-climax of the End of War. And now with the election there does seem to be a hard brittle enamel of complete and perfect insanity over everything. It is so complete that one no longer fees goaded into revolt or rebellion. There is no point, slightly weaker than the rest, where one would aim an attack. So one sits back with a smothered grin and tight feeling of suffocation. And nearer and nearer comes the awful realization that soon one must start making plans. One must see about reserving a cell somewhere in the madhouse. There are warders to be interviewed and a straight jacket to be bought. As for Art. Well that’s all very well for those who have only eyes, and who can be completely absorbed in looking at things. And apart from that the frustrations have become so boring and tame by now that art is no longer the imperative, urgent, personal compensation.
A creeping sense of sickness comes over me at the unnecessariness of mediocre painting just at the present time. Oh, I know it stands for something very fine: a gesture of man’s unconquerable spiritual existence. But need one go on and on making the gesture when one doesn’t do it very well. Must one go on driving in the little stakes of order to stem the avalanche of chaos even when one sees quite clearly that the avalanche is not the tiniest bit deflected, nor the stakes overwhelmed, but carried along quite comfortably on the back of the downward plunge. The ‘official recognition’ of art in the post-war lunacy seems to have removed the last justification for trying to be an artist. But good god man, does an artist need any justification. A man paints because he has to. Because he’s born with this great divine urge to create. Because there’s nothing else he can do. Alas I have to admit there are a great many other things I could quite happily do besides paint. (But hush – not a word to my clients. Mr. McDonald’s spies are reading over your shoulder. Already the small type is being set up in underground presses: ‘Artist hoaxes public’. ‘Promising young painter confesses to nationwide fraud.’ ‘Keith Vaughan pursued in Bond Street by angry mob.’ ‘British Council promises full investigation’.)
The trouble is I’m tired of finding drawings, continually fraternizing with filing cases and nominal rolls. I’m tired of messing about with pots of poster colour on pinned up pieces of tissue paper. I’m tired of having nothing to look at but barbed wire and flat fields full of waist high wheat, and grasses. I’m tired of always having to start when I’m tired. Actually I’ve been sparring around with some paintings lately. There’s a wheelbarrow full of weeds and two people, one getting something out of another’s eye. The sun is shining. There is a gardener and two children in an orchard looking up at a passing train. A man about to make the first incision with his thumb into an orange, everything drawing away defensively before the threat of the squirt of juice. I can think of painting in bed and get quite excited about it. But when it comes to putting something on paper: here are the ochre and umber washes. Here comes the nervous sensitive line. Here comes the ‘fascinating’ shapes.
of the barbed wire are six hundred and nineteen young men who have nothing to do with painting. They walk up and down, lie in the grass, look out over the ripening fields, waiting and waiting. I could go in, nothing stops me, oh if only the regulations forbade me to go in. All would be ready to talk. Each day they are taken out into the fields and ripened in the sun and put back into the cage in the evening. Their skin gets darker and darker and their hair more honey coloured. There is no chance they will suddenly vanish, disappear round a corner with someone else. Their eyes look at you brightly and there is a smile just hovering in the background. 619 cells of potential human happiness and vitality. None of the colourless ‘ground-off-ness’ of the Victors, that complacent self-satisfied deadness of a British mess. To stand amongst them a moment, one is almost overwhelmed with the feeling of raw vitality. A sense of expectation and waiting, waiting. If one only knew the word. It would need only such a tiny readjustment in the circumstances. Then all over England and all over Europe a great healing flood would be released. A great army of the dispossessed with nothing more to lose, no roots to hold them, no doubts or difficult decisions to make, nothing but the ultimate and primary and unshakeable conviction that human beings are meant to live together and learn to love each other.
I am defenceless against that feeling here. The Germans must have that talent for warm spontaneous friendliness against which it is impossible to stand out. No amount of reason and caution and historical precedent invalidates it. It may be treachery but it is impossible to believe until it’s too late. If only the old and clever and wise and experienced, who year after year struggle with the hopelessly complicated machinery of human society would suddenly, without exception, the crooked and the straight, the crooks and schemers and idealists, the revolutionaries and reactionaries and the neat-footed who do their tight-rope walk in between, all and everyone grow so helplessly, desperately and unspeakably tired that they simply couldn’t raise another finger or do a single hands turn more. Then, at last, we might realize why it is birds fly away at our approach; why cows look at us always with nervous amazement; why horses continue to put up with us with weary patience, trying to look pleased when we stroke their noses; and why bees sometimes in sheer exasperation and despair are simply obliged to sting.
The one thing that makes me happier than anything else today is the pathetic and complete and shameful failure of the anti-fraternization order in Germany.
If only that tiny little end of fuse could be found and lit, the whole thing would blow up in a shattering roar of laughter and we should sit lamely down together in the sun and cry. Rub our eyes. Mother comes hurrying up the stairs to see whatever was the terrible noise. Helps pick up all the broken bricks and expensive useless toys. Wipes our eyes and tells us to blow our noses and not be silly little things any more; to run off now and wash our hands for tea.
Yet although we know it is not only the nursery, because, like Alice, we will keep drinking out of bottles marked “Not to be Taken” we shrink and shrink until the bricks are bigger than cathedrals and the clockwork toys are terrifying pieces of machinery. And the only thing that reassures us, because unaccountably it seems never to change; the thing we turn to again and again for comfort is the little brightly coloured transfer of roses and butterflies on the lid of the box of ninepins; that lovely and inexplicable and wholly unnecessary thing – a work of art.
‘Ce que j’admire le plus dans Rimbaud’ says Bernard in Les Faux Monnaiyeurs, ‘C’est d’avoir préferé la vie.’ And I can never make up my mind how much I agree and how much I don’t.
No, I shan’t be on leave quite yet. About the end of the month I think. I might be able to fit in a long weekend before but at the moment things are too unsettled here. Are you thinking of a holiday yet. Why not come up here for a few days. Whitby is lovely. I went there yesterday and spent a long day climbing over cliffs and rocks, pottering about the boats and smells of fish and tar and varnishes. Watching the blue-jerseyed boys doing numerous entirely sensible small things. The sun shone. Old men smoked pipes on seats. Young men leant against walls. Girls walked past without looking where they were going. Fisherlads walked past in groin-high rubber waders which had been rolled down on their thighs and the rolls of rubber rubbing together between their legs as they warmly squelched. At the back of a long dark meat shop hung with hundreds of carcasses a pale boy in blue sawed at a raw bone with a thin blade. In a shallow basement a man crouched in a hole in a heap of shoes sewing soles; his head was level with the passing feet. Shoes, empty or occupied made up his entire world. It is humiliating to have to admit there are advantages in being a cripple. Have you seen Grimes yet? You said you would lend me a Corvo book. I will try and send some eggs soon. My best love to Robert and Robert and your silly old self.
Keith Vaughan to John Minton: January 9, 1945
Painting – a genteel modicum still continues. I get just so far and then, crash, I’m off the rails, racing wildly down the embankment of English Renaissance Impressionism, or thump – the whole machine seizes up with a neurotic twitch, or wearily, yawning, reaching for another chocolate biscuit, I become once again ‘fluent and plausible’.
Over and over I say to myself it’s understanding that matters, not talent. (I cannot remember who said that first.) But how, I ask myself in exasperation, can one reveal all the understanding one thinks one has in a painting. Auden can reveal it in a poem, Sibelius can reveal it in music. But painting is always so infuriatingly visual. Every problem isn’t a visual one unless one is only a pair of eyes. And it’s no solution to make illustrated commentaries on what remain problems in an entirely different field. How does one translate all one’s problems into visual terms. Into apples on a plate, or figures in a landscape. Of course it can be done. Giorgione did it. Thanks to Mr. Stokes, I have been spending some hours brooding over the incomparable’ Tempestà’. Of course I know what I really want to do is an ‘Agony in the Garden’ or a ‘Crucifixion.’ But how could one ever begin? Sutherland is doing a ‘Crucifixion’ for the Northampton church where Moore’s Madonna is. Did I tell you? He came over one evening just before I went back and we talked about it. He talks about it so well that I have a fear he may paint it rather badly. He said at any rate he’s going to have a shot. He doesn’t know whether he can do it or not. The part he’s most frightened of is the figures at the base. He thinks that is really the crucial point in a crucifixion, which is true really, though I hadn’t thought of it before.
I’m still trying to find out how to draw people that walk about over fields, either with wheel-barrows or bags of lime. I draw one or two each night. Sometimes with birds sometimes without. They walk about all over my desk until you can’t see the place for mud and manure and dust.
Following on from Giorgione, I’ve suddenly realized just what a tremendous thing Titian’s ‘Noli me Tangere’ is. Why does one somehow feel disqualified from even trying to paint like that now. Why is the very idea laughable and rather disgraceful. Even ‘Guernica’ is only half a painting compared with this. The nearest thing is, perhaps, Seurat’s ‘Bathers’, but even that seems only a beautifully prepared case for an idea. The idea itself just isn’t there.
In 1946/7, Vaughan and Minton moved into 37 Hamilton Terrace along with the writer Alan Ross. This arrangement lasted for six years and during this time they stimulated each other’s creative expression. Vaughan introduced Minton to John Lehmann and, in return, Minton introduced Vaughan to William Johnstone, which resulted in his teaching post at Camberwell. After a while, however, their domestic situation started to deteriorate. Minton’s socializing, noisy parties and drunken gatherings went far beyond the tolerance of the fastidious Vaughan. Soon there was a string of hangers-on and people dossing down in the boiler room. A frequent visitor was Patrick Woodcock, who was to become one of Vaughan’s life-long friends. He recalled that on several occasions, over dinner and drinks, the three of them discussed the subject of suicide. Being more reticent and less socially at ease, Vaughan envied Minton’s flair with people and began to resent the ceaseless noise and activity that his incessant entertaining inevitably generated. He wrote in his journal:
31 October 1948
One of my big mistake during the last 2 years – trying to model my behavior on J’s – to emulate his debonair, careless, irresponsibility, as though his success (?) in this way of life could be passed on to me. Especially in teaching. What folly. Realized finally today at dinner that we are nothing but a nuisance to each other. And because of pliability he is bad for me. My resistance to his way of living, of which I disapprove, takes the form of exaggerating its opposite, becoming morose & peevish. Impossible to live just naturally differently when his life obtrudes so much & makes mine at times impossible. Add to that too my uncertainty of the exact nature of my life, apart from knowing by now that it is not his, & the necessity to separate becomes urgent. Indeed failure to do this will be dangerous to both of us. Since our differences are never voiced or openly admitted, they exist, for my part, as a growing minor inflammation, an incensed resentment which poisons much of my thought & handicaps my work, forcing me to think less well of him than he deserves. The great obstacle to a separation is inertia, apart from the actual difficulty of finding suitable alternative accommodation, which, short of some violent outburst, it is difficult to see how to overcome…There is simply no-one I know today who is trying to make something of themselves. They are all just being themselves, in other words, indulging their immediate inclinations. (How much is this is an illusion produced by J and his entourage – almost all my social contacts filter through him). Of course this was absolutely my own fault, I encouraged his participation always, rather than face the difficulties of finding my friends for myself.
Estrangement from JM almost complete, scarcely ever met – only amicable, rather strained pleasantries to say to each other. Sometimes I feel he finds the accusation that my presence on the perimeter of his life, my stillness in the middle of his movement, seems to represent, [something] almost intolerable (what a sentence).
Vaughan moved to Belsize Park in the early 1950s and discovered that the ever-generous Minton had been subsidizing his rent, paying more than the agreed amount. Despite this typical generosity they never really became close friends again. When Minton killed himself in January1957 Vaughan wrote about him in several journal entries:
25 January 1957
Much affected by the news of Johnnie M’s death on Sunday night. Although long anticipated & felt to be inevitable the fact is profoundly shocking & hard to grasp. The funeral yesterday (cremation) was in bright warm sunshine, a lot of flowers. But who was the young man who sat in front terribly broken with grief who had to be supported out?
26 January 1957
Johnnie will, I suppose, become a sort of legend now. After the rather dreary last 3 years of his life are forgotten one will remember the scintillating creature that one knew before. Profligate in everything. Essentially destructive, though apparently creative in everything. A very considerable influence to all who met him. Impossible to be with for long since nothing could burn in his vapour.
2 February 1957
Dreamt of Johnny Minton last night – that he was very much alive. Just alive – the most characteristic thing about him which is why it is so difficult to imagine him dead.
9 April 1957
“What does it all mean” Johnny M. would repeat like a refrain & everyone would laugh. ‘Good old J.’ would be the line of thought. How full of life – how talented – he can afford to make everything into a joke. But the fact remains that there comes a point in life when that question has to be answered or else one cannot go on.
The account that he decided to publish in Keith Vaughan Journals & Drawings, 1967 varies from this handwritten manuscript version:
25 January 1957
Much affected by the news of Johnny’s death on Sunday night. Although long anticipated and felt to be inevitable the fact is profoundly shocking and hard to grasp. The outstanding thing about him was that he was very much alive. He was never, as some people, half in love with death. But he was in love with destruction. And I can’t help feeling that in destroying finally himself, this was meant to be another unconsidered spontaneous act, a gesture which was not really intended to end in death. The funeral yesterday was in bright warm sunshine. A lot of flowers. (But who was the young man who sat in front terribly broken with grief who had to be supported out?).
Johnny will, I suppose, become a sort of legend now. After the rather dreary and desperate last three years of his life are forgotten, one will remember the scintillating creature one knew before. He was profligate in everything – with his affections, his money, his talents, and with all his warmth and charm essentially destructive. He turned everything into a joke and subject for laughter. People never stopped laughing in his presence. ‘What does it all mean’ he would repeat year after year, without really wanting to know the answer. But there comes a point in life when that question has to be answered or else one cannot go on. His influence was considerable on all who knew him, particularly the young, and not always I fear to their benefit. No one else could shine in his presence – his light was too strong – you were devoured or robbed of your identity – and he managed to persuade you that this did not really matter.
Vaughan’s last mention of Minton in his journal was written four years before he died:
July 20, 1973
I should have died with the others of my generation. Colquhoun, MacBryde, Minton etc. Before 60. I have no foundation for old age.