ERIC VERRICO: THE MOST BEAUTIFUL OF JOHNNY'S CIRCUS 

  • “Eric Verrico was the one who most frequently posed, for, looking as if he had stepped out of a Caravaggio,

    he was the most beautiful of ‘Johnny’s Circus’.”

    Frances Spalding, 2005

  • John Minton, Portrait of Eric Verrico, 1947-48

    John Minton

    Portrait of Eric Verrico, 1947-48

    Once in the possession of notorious Soho club owner Muriel Belcher, John Minton’s (1917-1957) Portrait of Eric Verrico has remained in private hands until recently. Last publicly exhibited at the artist’s Commemorative Exhibition in 1958, this significant portrait comes back to the market in The Fine Art Society’s new exhibition Twenty Twenty . We take a deeper look at the enigmatic sitter and his relationship with the prolific artist.

     

    Eric Verrico was one of a group of young people in Minton’s expansive social circle, known as ‘Johnny’s Circus’, whom Minton regularly painted in the years following The Second World War. The portraits he produced from 1946 to 1949 are a potent demonstration of portraiture as anxious expression, as Minton struggled with his legitimacy as a figurative artist who desired to remain relevant to a younger generation. In a 1952 lecture, he declared: “I do not believe you can paint any old thing…It will only happen if it is really done with love.” Minton’s Portrait of Eric Verrico stands as testament to this declaration, in its portrayal of the transience of youth and beauty. Indeed, the self-reflection of the sitters, and the “melanchol[ic] impermanence of all physical beauty”, can be read as autobiographical. [1]

     

    Throughout his career, Minton was overwhelmingly focused on representations of the youthful, male body. “I often idly wonder if my preoccupation with adolescence in painting leads [one] to wonder what incentives, besides that of the obvious influences, I have to paint pictures like that.” [2] This ‘preoccupation’ undoubtedly reflected his homosexuality, and yet his work is far less overtly sexualised than some of his contemporaries, such as Keith Vaughan and Francis Bacon. Minton was openly gay and he worked, lived and socialised with other queer artists. Eric Verrico featured regularly in his portraits, although often with a reserved sensitivity, rather than overt eroticism. Minton fed off the energy provided by his young circle, and their determination to thrive in the bleak reality of post-Blitz London.

  • Verrico was a student at Camberwell School of Art and Craft. He met Minton through two friends, Robert ‘Bobby’ Hunt...

    John Minton and Eric Verrico in France

    Verrico was a student at Camberwell School of Art and Craft. He met Minton through two friends, Robert ‘Bobby’ Hunt and Owen ‘Oska’ Wood, who also studied at the school. Their unconventional student-teacher relationship was punctuated by late night sessions at the Colony Club in London’s Soho, and evenings of music and dancing with Minton’s housemates, fellow artists Robert Colquhoun  and Robert Macbryde . 

     

    Verrico first appears in Group Portrait, 1945,  alongside Bobby and Oska, following a trip to Cornwall – one of several trips taken with Minton. The painting shows the three friends sitting in a sparse room in front of a window that looks out onto a garden. It is a relaxed portrait of friends. Positioned slightly further from the table, Verrico occupies his own space in the picture, distinct from his fellow students. The physical separation of figures represents a distinction between the three individuals: Bobby and Oska took to Minton’s bohemian life more readily, and were at ease discussing art, music and literature, while Verrico, despite his amicable manner in the group, lacked a natural curiosity for these subjects. His easy-going nature manifests in Minton’s portrayal of Verrico’s laidback manner and vacant demeanour [3]. This mask-like indifference is present throughout Minton’s oeuvre of portraiture, acting as a linking thread from the intimacy of his early portraits, as in Portrait of Eric Verrico, to the psychological and sexual intensity of his later work.  In 1947, Oska, Bobby and Eric travelled back to Cornwall with Minton. This second trip was the genesis for at least four further portraits, including Bobby Hunt, 1947 (Walker Art Gallery), Cornish Boy at a Window, 1948 (Government Art Collection); Boy in a Landscape (Eric Verrico), 1948 ( Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter) as well as, Portrait of Eric Verrico.

  • John Minton, Portrait Group, 1945 (‘Oska’ Wood, Bobby Hunt and Eric Verrico) Oil on canvas. 91 x 60 cm

    Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel

  • The finished painting can be analysed against two contemporary images taken whilst Minton was working on the Portrait of Eric... The finished painting can be analysed against two contemporary images taken whilst Minton was working on the Portrait of Eric...

    The finished painting can be analysed against two contemporary images taken whilst Minton was working on the Portrait of Eric Verrico. The first, a sketch for the original composition, highlights how Minton altered Verrico’s features, transforming the sitter’s rounded jaw, fuller face, and unkempt, foppish hair into a more striking version of his lover. Complete with a strong jawline, and narrowed face that emphasises the elegance of the neck, Minton’s alteration makes the portrait markedly different to the other portraits of Verrico, which are presumably closer to reality. 

     

    The second comparative image is a photograph by Felix H. Man, taken of Minton with the painting around 1948. Likely taken in his studio at 37 Hamilton Terrace, the photograph illustrates a version of the painting prior to its reworking. Those familiar with Minton’s own striking physical appearance – particularly his slender face and deep brown, saucer-like eyes – might suspect him of having transmuted something of himself over Verrico’s visage. Minton explained, when speaking of the influence of William Blake through his work, that “there is no more revealing personality than the visual artist: for a man will paint only of himself and of the things he knows.” Despite this, many of Verrico’s features remain consistent between sketch and painting: his tousled fringe and the strong brow, the pronounced cleft of his top lip, the toned arms, the open neck collar of his shirt just below the Adam’s apple, and the particular position of his body, sat aslant in the chair. 

     

    Either by force (under his parent’s orders) or by choice, Verrico joined the RAF, and left Minton’s life in 1949. This is the last known portrait Minton made of him. The Portrait of Eric Verrico is demonstrative of the many significant themes of Minton’s oeuvre, particularly the ideal of youthful, male beauty. It is a sensitively constructed distillation of Eric’s own beautiful features, delivered with the dignity of a formal portrait - an amalgam of realities in one.

     

     

    [1] - John Minton in a letter to Michael Middleton, 12 October 1940 

    [2] - ibid.

    [3] - Spalding, Frances (2005), John Minton: Dance Till the Stars Come Down, Lund Humphries, London. p.88.

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