Mark Gatiss was still a teenager when he fell for the painter John Minton, on a visit to London from his native County Durham.
“It was a National Express coach trip, seven hours down the motorway,” he says of the 1980s journey that took him to the National Portrait Gallery. “I saw his self-portrait across the room. I loved the style, I loved the sadness of it.”
Long-faced, lugubrious and with a pudding bowl haircut, Minton looks like a medieval ascetic in his NPG self-portrait. He was actually an alcoholic depressive and prodigious partygoer, part of the 1950s Soho drinking set that included the painters Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.
“There was a fascinating melting pot of postwar excitement and postwar loss in Soho,” says Gatiss. “A lot of shattered personalities.” Most of us outgrow our teenage enthusiasms, but the 51-year-old Doctor Who and Sherlock star stayed true and has now made his own documentary about Minton, a tragic figure who took a fatal overdose of sleeping tablets in 1957, when he was only 39.
“It’s a passion project in every sense,” says Gatiss. “Everybody said he was too obscure, so I paid for the whole documentary.”
Minton came to public attention during the war as one of the neo-romantics, a particularly British style of figurative painting often with mystical themes. His work features lonely
looking young men in bomb sites – echoing Minton’s own search, as Gatiss discovered, for sex in Blitzed London.
“He was gay, and I knew I was by the time I was 15. I was at the right age to be looking for heroes.” In 1950, Minton wrote a letter to The Listener defending, “the homosexual in society”.
Homosexuality was then illegal and Minton was becoming well known for his illustrations to Elisabeth David’s hugely influential 1950 Book of Mediterranean Food.
“It was an amazingly bold thing to do,” says Gatiss. “He was obsessed with becoming an associate member of the Royal Academy. When he didn’t, he was distraught, and that may be down to him being so public about his sexuality.”
Then, in Soho, Minton wason the receiving end of one of the most famous insults of the 20th century when Bacon tipped a glass over his head and said, “Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends.”
There were more setbacks. Minton’s commercial illustrations were popular, but the art world had moved into abstraction, leaving Minton behind and drinking more than ever.
“It’s the irresistible pull of self-destruction,” says Gatiss. “He could have left Soho, but he didn’t. I think he was probably rather haunted.”
Is despair a bad thing for artists? “There’s an undeniable correlation between suffering and art. Watch the first episode of Fawlty Towers and John Cleese is so visibly mentally ill, he’s got massive rings around his eyes and he’s so sick, and the whole show is infused with his manic anger – that’s why it’s so brilliant. Then John Cleese got better and you can’t deny that it’s not as funny.”
Minton made one last bid to escape his fate. “He was drawing in Scotland two days before he killed himself,” says Gatiss. “But I think there was a despair that he didn’t know how to cope with, coupled with an absolute death wish.
“From the age of 19 he had told all his friends he wouldn’t live past 40 and he didn’t. Minton was always doomed.”
Mark Gatiss on John Minton: the Lost Man of British Art is on Monday 9.00pm BBC4