Published: 6:18PM GMT 18 Nov 2009
John Craxton, who died on November 17 aged 87, was one of the leading artists of the 1940s Neo-Romantic movement – a label which he detested throughout his life; although remaining essentially an English painter, for the past half-century he had lived an expatriate existence in Greece. He illustrated Paddy’s book covers (see blog header) and provided pen sketches for almost fifty years.
One of six children, and the fourth of five sons, John Leith Craxton was born on October 3 1922 at St John’s Wood, London, into a highly musical family. His father, Harold Craxton, was a pianist and Professor of Pianoforte at the Royal College of Music, his mother, Essie Faulkner, a violinist; his sister, Janet, was to become an oboist. The visual arts, however, were represented in his family history by the 18th-century painter Benjamin West, an ancestor on his mother’s side.
After attending seven different schools, of which the only one he enjoyed was Betteshanger, near Deal, at 17 John went to study at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris; on the outbreak of war he returned to London, enrolling at the Westminster and then the Central School of Art. By the age of 19 he was established in a maisonette at Abercorn Place in St John’s Wood, which he shared with another young artist, Lucian Freud.
Watson also gave the young artists introductions to such figures as John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Augustus John and the art historian Kenneth Clark. Clark called on the St John’s Wood flat dressed in tweeds and a country cap, and was soon giving Craxton and Freud the run of his Hampstead library as well as buying their pictures.
Because he suffered from pleurisy, in 1941 Craxton was rejected for military service. Poet in a Landscape (1941), executed after he heard that he would not be expected to fight, is typical in its combination of a subject from the romantic repertoire with disturbingly up-to-date elements. A youthful figure, based on the artist himself, sits reading in a field. But the landscape is far from idyllic: instead it is a threatening tangle of spiky, writhing branches and enormous, fleshy leaves. Both this drawing and a similar one, Dreamer in a Landscape, were reproduced in Horizon in March 1942.
Although in the early 1940s Craxton’s style oscillated rapidly between different influences – and was, to that extent, immature – it was during this period that he produced his most intense images. At this time both he and Freud were fond of using dead animals as models (when Clark called, there was a dead monkey hidden in their oven). This enthusiasm was expressed in Freud’s Chicken in Basket and Craxton’s Hare in Larder (1943), two memorable, if disturbing, works.
For Geoffrey Grigson’s anthology, The Poet’s Eye (1944), Craxton executed 16 colour lithographs which are widely regarded as among the finest book illustrations of the Neo-Romantic movement. In general they sustain the earlier mood, a point of balance between rustic dream and modernist nightmare; but some show the effect of the time he had spent in 1943-44 painting beside Sutherland in Pembrokeshire.
Sutherland’s stark influence was strong at this time, but another attraction was that, according to Peter Watson, west Wales represented the closest approach in Britain to the strong light and elemental landscape of the Mediterranean.
As soon as the war was over, Craxton took off for the Continent. By the end of 1946 he had spent time in France, where he met Picasso and patronised opium dens (but “did not inhale”). He had also visited Switzerland, where he exhibited; Italy, where he smoked a joint with Raymond Mortimer in Toscanini’s private box during the latter’s triumphant return to La Scala; and Greece, a country with which Craxton fell in love.
In Geoffrey Grigson’s monograph John Craxton: Paintings and Drawings (1948), Craxton is quoted as saying that in postwar London he felt “like an émigré… and squashed flat”. His intention, he declared, was to return to Greece as soon as possible. Years later he explained: “I wanted to put myself in an alien land and see if my talent would stand it.”
Over the next decade Craxton spent much of his time travelling in southern Europe, first settling on Poros, where he was visited by his old friend Freud. They sketched each other and exchanged the drawings as in the old days.
Back in London, Craxton joined his old friend at the gaming club Aspinalls. Over scrambled eggs and champagne, Freud told him that, desperate for money, he had sold the drawings Craxton had given him, adding: “You don’t mind, do you?”
Some time later Craxton too found himself strapped for cash, and was persuaded to sell some Freud drawings. When these were put up for sale in London, Freud was called upon to authenticate them. “Craxton is a —-“, he wrote on the back, which did no harm to their value.
In 1960 Craxton finally settled at Hania on the island of Crete, where his life was by all accounts as idyllic as his pictures had become. A devotee of Greek music, Byzantine art and Moto Guzzi motorcycles, he was for many years the honorary British consul on the island; from time to time he would be telephoned by the embassy and asked if he could find a hotel for a visiting dignitary such as the Duke of Kent, or girls for cocktail parties for the ships that came in.
From the late 1940s Craxton’s favourite subject had been the sun-baked south, with its sparkling seas, olive trees, goats and human inhabitants; and his characteristic mood was a lyric contentment very different from the bleak misanthropy of many of his contemporaries.
The Tate’s Pastoral for PW (Peter Watson) of 1948 is a good early example of Craxton’s mature manner. The subject – a solitary piper strolling among trees and grazing flocks – belongs to the world of Virgil’s Eclogues; but the paramount stylistic influences are now Picasso and Miró (purged, however, of their violence and savage vitality). The flat, numinous art of Byzantium also made a deep impression on the artist.
Craxton painted prolifically throughout his life. He also designed a ballet, Daphnis et Chloë, for Frederick Ashton in 1951, and produced the scenery and costumes for Stravinsky’s Apollo at the Royal Opera House in 1968.
Of his many illustrations for the books of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the most delightful – and the most expressive of the ardent philhellenism he shared with the author – was the frontispiece for Mani (1958).
John Craxton was elected a Royal Academician in 1993. His last London exhibition was at Art First in 2001.
Craxton had his detractors – at the time of his Whitechapel retrospective in 1967 critics muttered scathingly about superior “Chelsea restaurant murals”.
His unfashionably happy later work may come to be valued more highly in the future, but it is probably for his early work that he is likely to be best remembered.
He is survived by his long-term partner, Richard Riley.
Original obituary in the Telegraph