At least this is new to me. I discovered it recently appended to an article about the new John Craxton biography (more on that later). I thought that we might all enjoy this image of two young men in their prime, two great friends, just larking about in their favourite place.
An Australian perspective on the idyllic island of Hydra, home of Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, Leonard Cohen, and frequented by Paddy, Durrell, and John Craxton.
From Neos Kosmos.
Historically, the small rocky island of Hydra has been closely associated with the Greek War of Independence, in which it played an important role, being a prosperous shipping centre at the time; the sea captains’ mansions that ring the island’s harbour are a testament to its heritage. In more recent decades, however, Hydra has come to be known primarily as an artistic hub, its heyday being in the 1950’s and 60’s, when numerous writers, musicians and painters were drawn to its rugged charm.
Hydra’s appeal to artists can probably be traced back to Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, the most famous Greek cubist artist and key figure in the Greek modernist movement known as the “Generation of the ’30s”. Ghika was a native, coming from an old and prominent Hydriot family, which had in the past contributed many naval officers and captains in the Greek Revolution. In the 1950s’and 60’s, exhibitions of his work across the globe won him international acclaim; he befriended other artists and intellectuals, and would host them in his Hydra home for extended periods of time.
His 18th century 40-room mansion, perched on a steep hillside, housed such names as Henry Miller, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lawrence Durrell, Norman Mailer, Edmund “Mike” Keeley, Giorgos Seferis, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Le Corbusier, John Craxton, Rex Warner and Cyril Connolly. Painters, such as Craxton and Ghika himself, were greatly inspired by the island’s unique scenery, as evidenced in their work. Leigh Fermor, spent two years there, writing a large part of his book Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese and translating the Greek Resistance memoir The Cretan Runner.
In his celebrated travelogue The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Miller, who was hosted by Ghika in 1939, lauded Hydra’s “naked perfection” describing it as a “rock which rises out of the sea like a huge loaf of petrified bread. It is the bread turned to stone which the artist receives as reward for his labour when he fist catches sight of the promised land”. In 1961, the Ghika mansion was destroyed by fire, prompting the owner to leave Hydra and never return. By that time, however, a colony of expatriate artists and writers had already been established on the island.
Inspired by Miller’s journey, an international bohemian community of artists and writers had begun to form on Hydra; central figures to this circle were Charmian Clift and George Johnston, a married couple of writers from Australia who moved there in 1956, after some time living on the more remote island of Kalymnos. Their Hydra house soon became a destination for several others looking for a primitive landscape and an unconventional lifestyle.
During their years on the island, they both wrote some of their most important works: Johnston’s My Brother Jack, a classic of Australian literature, and Clift’s Peel Me a Lotus, where she describes her family’s life on Hydra. My Brother Jack’s sequel, Clean Straw for Nothing, was written after Johnston had left Greece, but drew heavily on his experiences on Hydra.
Their dramatic lives, marked by creative fever, substance abuse, tempestuous lovers’ quarrels and eventually tragedy (with Charmian committing suicide) has inspired several authors, who have put special focus on the couple’s years on the island. In her play, Hydra, Australian writer Sue Smith recounts “the passion and intensity of the near mythical ‘King and Queen of Hydra’”; the couple also has a central role in the book Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreams and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964, which details the lives Hydra’s expat community, as well as in Polly Samson’s novel A Theatre for Dreamers, which captures the “hazy, sun-drenched days” of that same group of people. In both these books there is, of course, another central character: a young Canadian troubadour and aspiring writer who has arguably come to be linked with the island of Hydra more than anyone else.
Leonard Cohen arrived on Hydra in 1960, at the age of 26; he met Clift and Johnston, who in fact offered to host him at the beginning of his stay. Soon, Cohen would buy a house on the island for $1500, using a bequest from his recently deceased grandmother. He liked it although it was run down and had no running water. In a letter to his mother, he wrote “I live on a hill and life has been going on here exactly the same for hundreds of years. All through the day you hear the calls of the street vendors and they are really rather musical”; he also noted that the Aegean Sea was 10 minutes from his door.
On Hydra, Cohen met Marianne Ihlen, who soon became his first great love as well as his muse. Ihlen had arrived on the island in 1958 with her then-husband, Norwegian writer Axel Jensen. Soon after the birth of their son, Axel Jr., Jensen left her and the island, and not long after Ihlen moved in with Cohen, along with her baby. Cohen lived with Marianne throughout the 60’s, and for the first seven years he would commute between New York, Montreal, and Hydra.
At the time, his ambition was to become an established writer. While on Hydra, he would wake up every day around 7 a.m. and work on his writings until noon; in the evenings, he would meet with his friends –including Clift and Johnston, Redmond and Robyn Wallis and many others- in local bars and taverns, such as the Katsikas Bar, where he would give his first live performances, years ahead of his debut. During his time on Hydra, Cohen published the novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966), and the poetry collection Flowers for Hitler (1964).
His works were met with mixed reactions and only sold few copies, and he gradually shifted his focus towards songwriting, eventually leaving for the USA in 1967 to pursue a career in music. At the end of that same year he released his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, which features one of his most iconic songs, “So Long, Marianne”, written for Ihlen.
Source: Greek News Agenda
Mark Eastment, editorial director at Yale University Press London, acquired world rights (excluding Greece) from David Godwin at David Godwin Associates.
John Craxton: A Life of Gifts will be written by the trustee of the John Craxton Estate, Ian Collins, and will come a year ahead of the centenary of Craxton’s birth.
Craxton spent much of his early adulthood in Greece and was well travelled. His contemporaries included Edmund White, Lucian Freud, Patrick Leigh Fermor and David Attenborough. As well as a painter, Craxton was also a book illustrator in the Neo-Romantic style. The biography is compiled using letters from the artist’s life, as well as from interviews conducted before his death.
Collins commented: “John Craxton banned any book on his hedonistic life from 1948 onwards, so I began to make notes for mine in secret on the day we met. We became friends, he relaxed his veto and we recorded many interviews before his death in November 2009. Craxton was erudite, anarchic and hugely entertaining and it has been the honour and pleasure of my life to be allowed to tell his story.”
Eastment said: “There is a growing interest in this fascinating artist and we felt now was the right time for a fully-fledged biography to be published on Craxton. His work is being reassessed and appreciated by more and more people.”
Says Wilkie, ‘Landscape, for me, is more about light, sound and stories than appearance. You really can hear, smell and taste this painting. The vibrating patterns are mesmerising; they root a fleeting moment in a timeless place. The setting sun pulses, the motion in the waves and figures is slowly rhythmic and the mountains float on the horizon. I have stared at the painting for hours and it draws you in deeper. It drifts into your imagination.’
John McEwen on Two Figures and Setting Sun by John Craxton:
John Craxton first came to prominence in the early 1940s as a neo-Romantic painter in the pastoral tradition of the 19th-century Samuel Palmer. Craxton disliked being labelled, but, to his friend and collector Sir David Atten-borough, he ‘grudgingly admitted’ he would accept ‘Arcadian’ (John Craxton by Ian Collins, 2011).
John Leith Craxton was born into a musical family. His father was a pianist, musicologist and professor at the Royal College of Music and his mother, a descendant of Benjamin West, the second president of the Royal Academy, gave up a career as a violinist to mother her family of five sons (John was the fourth) and one daughter, the future oboist Janet Craxton. John was brought up in St John’s Wood, where his parents kept open house to young and old in an atmosphere of benign bohemian disorder. That spirit prevailed when, in old age, he presided over his parents’ later Hampstead home, the music room of which is still used by professional musicians.
For much of his life, Craxton lived and worked in Greece, latterly in Crete—suitably for an Arcadian, as Arcadia was originally a region of southern Greece. He was the artist counterpart of his friend, the Greek-based travel writer Patrick Leigh-Fermor, whose book jackets he illustrated.
Craxton took 15 years to paint this Arcadian homage to his adopted land, due to much revision, including the loss of a figure. A boy flings an octopus onto the quay: ‘The subject is Greek in its bones but what amuses me is the old romantic English love of mood coming out in me,’ he wrote.
Further articles about John Craxton here.
Dorset County Museum’s art exhibition A Poetic Eye: John Craxton on Cranborne Chase and Crete was officially opened by Sir David Attenborough and Hilary Spurling OBE on the 27th March 2015. Many of us were able to see this either at the museum or when it moved to Salisbury.
This video includes an explanation by Sir David Attenborough on why he loves the work of John Craxton. Sir David has been a lifelong fan of Craxton’s work.
John Craxton (1922-2009) was one of the most interesting and individual British artists of the 20th century. His life story, starting with wanderings on Cranborne Chase, was as colourful as his later pictures of the light, life and landscapes of Greece, and illustrations for Paddy’s books..
This exhibition at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester charted Craxton’s journey from Cranborne to Crete, from early paintings of dark and menaced war-time landscapes to joyful scenes painted under bright Cretan skies.
First published in The Oldie, 1 June 2018.
By John Julius Norwich.
A new show at the British Museum – about three great lovers of Greece – takes me right back to the 1950s. The English painter Johnny Craxton (1922-2009) was a joy – the only dinner guest we ever had who came on his motorbike and left his leathers in the hall. He always came on his own; we were all intrigued by the idea of his long-term boyfriend, whom we never met. I think Johnny saw Greece as a larger Crete – just as Neville Chamberlain was always said to see Europe as a larger Birmingham. Johnny loved Crete with passion.
The Athenian painter Nikos Ghika (1906-1994) provided me with my first breath of Greece in the summer of 1954, when we went to stay with him in his lovely old house on the island of Hydra.
Also staying there were Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor. Ghika later designed the serpentine pebble mosaic floors at Kardamyli – the Leigh Fermors’ enchanting house in the Mani. It was Paddy that I knew best of the three. Our friendship lasted from the 1950s until his death in 2011 at the age of 96.
In the spring of 1955, when we were living in Yugoslavia – I was working at the British Embassy – a letter arrived from my mother. She had been offered a caique for a fortnight’s sail among the isles of Greece. Paddy and Joan Leigh Fermor were coming; could we come, too? At the end of August, we drove down from Belgrade to Athens, and boarded the Eros at Piraeus.
It was my first time in the Aegean, and my best. Paddy lived and breathed his beloved Greece – fluent in its language, encyclopaedic in his knowledge of its history, people and literature. And nobody has ever carried his learning more lightly.
As we sailed from island to island – and, in those days, there were almost no tourists, and I can’t describe what a difference that made – he talked about Greece, Greek beliefs and traditions, about Byron and the Greek War of Independence, about those monstrously magnificent Greek heroes – men such as Mavromichalis and Kolokotronis, whose names roll so satisfactorily across the tongue – and about the Greek Orthodox Church and its quarrels with the West over words such as ‘filioque’ and ‘homoousion’, his talk taking in all the mystery and magic of the Byzantine world. Twenty years later, I was to write a history of Byzantium myself; but I doubt whether, had it not been for that fortnight on the Eros, I should ever have done so.
One day we were in a taverna on Santorini. Britain and Greece were then at the height of the Cyprus dispute and Paddy was, of course, firmly on the Greek side. Suddenly a member of the party at the next table, hearing us speaking English and being slightly drunk, launched into a stream of anti-British invective. We pretended not to notice. Then, suddenly, he and his companions burst into song.
‘Quick,’ whispered Paddy. ‘National anthem – everybody up.’
We leapt to our feet while he, naturally knowing all the words, sang them at the top of his voice. The mood of the other table changed immediately; and they were still more impressed when he continued with all the following verses – solo by now, since no one else knew them. Abject apologies followed: the ouzo went round once more, and we all departed friends.
It was characteristic of Paddy that, when he and Joan decided to build themselves a house in Greece, they chose the remotest corner: Kardamyli, at the far end of the Mani, the second of the three peninsulas that form the southern coast of the Peloponnese. And oh, how they loved it.
Paddy basically designed it himself. I remember him saying, while the building was in progress, ‘I want it to be part of outdoors, so that, if a chicken were found wandering through the library, no one would be a bit surprised.’
By November 1969, with its vast supply of bookcases, a huge desk and plenty of room to pace over a stone floor, the ‘powerhouse for prose’, as Paddy liked to call it, was ready at last. The two books describing his teenage walk across Europe, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, were both written there, together with hundreds of letters, articles and the jeux d’esprit which he so loved, and of which he was such a master. But those dread enemies procrastination and distraction were always hovering behind him, tempting him away. And as we shall see, they were to get him in the end.
Kardamyli was a huge success. It became the epicentre of Paddy’s world. For the first time, at 54, he had a home of his own. He continued to travel around Europe to see his innumerable friends, but it was here, I feel quite sure, that he was happiest. Outside Europe he was seldom tempted to roam. Except, surprisingly, for the Caribbean. A year or two after the war, he and Joan were persuaded by their old friend (and mine) Costa Achillopoulos to accompany him on a longish tour of the islands.
The result was Paddy’s first book, The Traveller’s Tree, which was published in 1950, and also his second, The Violins of Saint-Jacques, an exquisite little novella which was his only venture into fiction.
The islands fascinated him. His chapter on voodoo is a masterpiece. And then, when he got to Barbados, what did he find? A tablet in the churchyard of St John’s, carved with Doric columns and the cross of Constantine, reading: ‘Here lyeth ye body of Ferdinando Palaeologus, descended from ye Imperial lyne of ye last Christian Emperor of Greece. Churchwarden of this parish 1655-1656. Vestryman twentye years. Died Oct 3. 1679.’
Later, Paddy discovered that Ferdinando’s son Theodore had returned to England and had settled in Stepney, where he left a posthumous daughter baptised with the typically 17th-century name of Godscall Palaeologus.
She may have married, and had countless children; but, for the time being, this little girl in Stepney remains the last authentic descendant of the Palaeologi, the last imperial family of Byzantium.
Of course Paddy was a superb linguist; but I have never known anyone who enjoyed his languages so intensely. He loved on-the-spot translations: ‘To be or not to be’ in German, for example – occasionally recited backwards – or D’Ye Ken John Peel in Italian, which my daughter Artemis (his biographer) and I sang at his memorial service:
Conosce Gian Peel, con sua giacca tanta grigia?
Conosce Gian Peel, prima cosa la mattina,
Conosce Gian Peel, quand’ è lontano, è lontano,
Con suoi cani e suo corno la mattina.
And then there were the letters –letters that could have been written by no one else. Reading them, written at such terrific speed that sometimes they grow faint because the fountain pen can’t deliver the ink fast enough, one marvels at Paddy’s facility and fluency. And yet, when he was writing a book for publication, every sentence was a battleground. When, in July 1988, Sotheby’s sold the autograph manuscript of A Time of Gifts, it was described in the catalogue as follows:
‘c.450 pages, the majority written on rectos only, some on both sides, the first chapter on lined foolscap sheets, some cartridge paper, others lined, heavily revised and corrected, revised passages frequently written on separate sheets and pasted or clipped over the original, corrections or elucidations often in red ink, foreign or difficult words printed in the margin, many sheets with encouraging notes to the typist, often stapled or stitched with coloured thread into gatherings, generally of ten pages.’
I have an idea – I hate to have to say it and desperately hope I’m wrong – that Paddy’s last years were not as happy as the rest of his life had been. He missed Joan desperately after she died in 2003, he was getting old and he gradually had to face up to the fact that he would never complete the third volume of the story of that glorious European journey in his early youth. He produced bits and pieces for it by the dozen, but something always prevented him from organising them, connecting them and making them into a single coherent document. It was, I suppose, a kind of writer’s block.
He would seize on anything – letters, articles, translations, those ingenious word games he so loved – rather than face one of two facts: the first, that he must finish the job; the second – far worse – that he couldn’t. Eventually he knew that the second was the truth. When he came to London, people would say breezily, ‘How’s Volume III coming on?’, little realising that they were driving a dagger through his heart.
Volume III is not entirely lost. The Broken Road, compiled by Colin Thubron and Artemis, breathes Paddy through and through. And anyway, he has left us so much more to revel in.
As a travel writer, he was surely in a class by himself. But he was much more than a travel writer; he was the most extraordinary literary – and social – phenomenon I have ever known, and I am proud to have been his friend.
A lovely video produced by the British Museum to accompany the exhibition Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor. Narrated by the exhibition curators. Discover more about their extraordinary friendship, creativity and life spent living together in Greece.
Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor
8 March – 15 July 2018
Supported by the A. G. Leventis Foundation and organised with the A. G. Leventis Gallery. In collaboration with the Benaki Museum and Craxton Estate.
Where? The British Museum, Room 5
When? 8 March – 15 July 2018
How Much? It is free!
Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994), John Craxton (1922–2009) and Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–2011) were significant cultural figures of the 20th century. Leigh Fermor is perhaps the most widely known of the three – largely through his travel writings – and Ghika and Craxton are now recognised as two of the most remarkable artists of this period. The three first met at the end of the Second World War, becoming lifelong friends and spending much of their subsequent lives in Greece. The time they spent together and their close bonds would shape each other’s work for the rest of their lives.
The exhibition brings together their artworks, photographs, letters and personal possessions in the UK for the first time. Highlights include Ghika’s extraordinary painting Mystras and Craxton’s exuberant Still Life with Three Sailors. Also featured is Craxton’s original artwork for the book covers of Leigh Fermor’s travel classics A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Many artworks and objects on display are on loan from the Benaki Museum, to which Ghika donated his house and works, from the Craxton Estate, and from institutions and private collections in the UK and Greece.
The exhibition focuses on four key places – Hydra, Kardamyli, Crete and Corfu – where they lived and spent time together. Hydra is an island where Ghika’s family home became a gathering place for the three friends, and Leigh Fermor built a house with his wife Joan at Kardamyli. Craxton restored a house at Chania on Crete, and Corfu is where Ghika and his second wife Barbara transformed an old building into an idyllic home and garden.
Together, these places chart the story of this remarkable friendship, and how the people and landscapes of Greece were a great influence on their enduring works.
By Jamie Doward
First published in The Guardian
24 December 2017
Oh, to have been a fly on the bougainvillea-clad wall as the drinks flowed and the sun sank behind the beautiful house tucked away in a remote part of Greece.
One night a visitor might find Stephen Spender or Louis MacNeice. Another, Lawrence Durrell and John Betjeman.
But always holding court, cigarette in hand, ouzo glass raised, would be Sir Patrick “Paddy” Leigh Fermor, the war hero and travel writer often said to be the inspiration for his friend Ian Fleming’s most famous creation, James Bond.
In the late 1950s, the house Leigh Fermor built with his wife Joan in Kardamyli, a seaside village located in the Mani peninsula, in the southern Peloponnese, became a haven for writers and artists drawn to its owner’s extraordinary charisma and the wild, arid beauty of the surrounding landscape.
It was here that Leigh Fermor, who died in 2011 aged 96, built his close friendship with two men – the Greek artist Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, who lived on Hydra before moving to Corfu, and the British painter, John Craxton, who lived for a time on Crete. Now the remarkable friendship is to be explored in a new exhibition at the British Museum that will open next spring.
Charmed Lives examines the influence that post-war Greece had on the three men and brings together in the UK for the first time their artworks, photographs, letters and personal possessions. Among the items on display will be Leigh Fermor’s typewriter (which he never managed to master), his binoculars and a Leica camera belonging to Joan, a professional photographer.
Striking paintings of Greek landscapes and local people by both Craxton and Ghika will feature alongside extracts from Leigh Fermor’s many books.
Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith, a former British ambassador to Athens, who knew all three men and is one of the exhibition’s curators, conceded many would be drawn by the cult of Leigh Fermor, a polyglot and autodidact once described as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.”
“There’s a tremendous fashion for him,” Llewellyn-Smith said. “In a way you’d expect it to diminish over time but the opposite is happening and it’s very difficult to explain. I don’t think it’s fully related to his work. It is for some people but there are others who are attracted by the legend.”
Much of Leigh Fermor’s legend is burnished by his epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul, made as an 18-year-old, and his heroics during the second world war when, leading a group of Cretan resistance fighters, he captured the German commander General Heinrich Kreipe in one of the most audacious acts in the history of the Special Operations Executive.
While his postwar books such as A Time Of Gifts cemented his legend and led to Leigh Fermor being regarded as one of the great travel writers, it transpires that the real-life 007 also dabbled as an artist and several of his works will be on display in the exhibition. These include six portraits of Cretan resistance fighters painted in 1942. They are the only ones out of around 20 similar paintings to have survived. The majority were destroyed as the Germans advanced.
“Paddy had an extremely acute visual sense and was himself an artist, an amateur,” Llewellyn-Smith said. “When he was walking across Europe, when he was 18 to 20 years old, around Vienna he had virtually no money and so he started drawing portraits of people to get enough to get a crust of bread or more.”
Llewellyn-Smith said the fact that all three men had died only relatively recently –Ghika in 1994, Craxton in 2009 – meant there was much to be gained by producing an exhibition of their lives and friendship now.
“A lot of people who knew them are still around, and therefore for those organising the exhibition, such as myself, it was possible to talk to them and get their memories and anecdotes. This couldn’t have been done if the exhibition had been delayed by many years.”
The organisers say they hope it will offer visitors an opportunity to reflect on Greece’s enduring role as a source of artistic inspiration. It may also offer a subtle reminder that British-Hellenic relations can be about more than that most famous of British Museum attractions, the Parthenon marbles. “This period when these three men got to know each other was a period of artistic and literary collaboration, almost a renaissance between British and Greek artists and writers,” Llewellyn-Smith said. “It didn’t have anything to do with politics and returning sculptures to Greece. That’s a different century.”
It may also offer clues as to why, despite smoking around 80 cigarettes a day, just like Fleming’s Bond, Leigh Fermor managed to live so long. “When he was in the Peloponnese he would go for walks every day in the mountains behind the house and he’d swim for half an hour every morning,” Llewellyn-Smith said.
In his will, Leigh Fermor gave the house to the Benaki museum in Athens with instructions for it to be turned into a writers’ retreat. While some of Leigh Fermor’s devoted fanbase have grumbled about the pace of its renovation – which at one stage appeared to have fallen victim to Greece’s economic woes, – there are hopes the exhibition may elicit funds to speed things up.
If so, it would mean that more than half a century on from when Leigh Fermor built his idyll, it will once again help nurture a new generation of artists and writer.
Charmed Lives in Greece the exhibition will run at the British Museum 8 Mar-15 July 2018
Especially for those who are Greek or read Greek an article from Protagon about the Craxton, Ghika, Fermor exhibition, but worth a view by all as there are some fine Ghika pictures and new photos of the friends. If you do not read Greek and wish to find out what has been written, I have a Google Translate version for you here.
First published in Protagon 7 June 2017
Γκίκας, Κράξτον, Λι Φέρμορ: Μια φιλία ύμνος της ζωής στην Ελλάδα
Mία ανασκόπηση της ζωής και του έργου τριών σημαντικών προσωπικοτήτων της Τέχνης και των Γραμμάτων του 20ού αιώνα παρουσιάζεται στο Μουσείο Μπενάκη. Η έκθεση διερευνά τη φιλία που ένωσε τους Νίκο Χατζηκυριάκο-Γκίκα, Τζον Κράξτον και Πάτρικ Λι Φέρμορ, και την αγάπη τους για την Ελλάδα.
Η έκθεση «Γκίκας, Craxton, Leigh Fermor: η γοητεία της ζωής στην Ελλάδα» που παρουσιάζεται εφέτος στο Μουσείο Μπενάκη αντανακλά τις μαγευτικές εξερευνήσεις των τριών μεγάλων δημιουργών στην Ελλάδα του περασμένου αιώνα. Πρόκειται για ένα αφιέρωμα στη ζωή και το έργο τους αλλά και στη φιλία που τους συνέδεσε για σχεδόν 50 χρόνια καθώς και στον «διάλογο» που ανέπτυξαν μεταξύ τους.
From Google Translate.
Gikas, Cracton, Li Fermor: A Friendship Hymn to Life in Greece
A review of the life and work of three important personalities of Art and Literature of the 20th Century is presented at the Benaki Museum. The exhibition explores the friendship that brought together Nikos Chatzikyriakos-Ghika, John Krasson and Patrick Li Fermore, and their love for Greece
The exhibition “Gikas, Craxton, Leigh Fermor: The Charm of Life in Greece” presented this year at the Benaki Museum reflects the magical explorations of the three great artists in Greece of the past century. It is a tribute to their life and work, but also to the friendship that has been associated with them for almost 50 years, as well as the “dialogue” they have developed among themselves.
It was organized by the Leventis Art Gallery in collaboration with the Benaki Museum and Craxton Estate and was first presented in Nicosia for the first time in the Leventis Art Gallery. It is now going to Athens and the year will be transferred to the British Museum of London (March – July 2018).
The tribute includes paintings and watercolors by Ch. Ghika and Cracton, and texts by Livermore, many of which come from unpublished material found by curators of the exhibition in personal records or in the archive of the author in the National Library of Scotland.
In addition, letters, pages of visitors’ books, notes, sketches, publications and dedications, as well as many rare photographs from the life of the three creators, revealing their love for Greece, history, myth, countryside and Greek Lifestyle, while reflecting their fascinating quests, their interactions and devotion to the joy of life.
The early years
The works come from the Benaki Museum Gallery, the Craxton Estate in London, the Leventis Art Gallery in Nicosia and many private collections, libraries and museums in Greece and abroad.
The first section of the report refers to the first years of their acquaintance with the events and the atmosphere of the era, which would then have an interdependent influence on their creativity.
The three artists met for the first time in the years 1945 and 1946. Nikos Chatzikyriakos-Ghikas met John Krasson and Patrick Livermore in London. Shortly thereafter, the two last met in Athens, and between the three, as well as between the two of them, Barbara Ghika and Joan Lee Fermor, a friendship was developed with a common reference point, the love of all of them for Greece. This friendship was going to prove highly resistant, since it would last for about fifty years.
Places of inspiration and happiness
The next sections of the exhibition revolve around the four places – Hydra, Kardamili, Chania and Corfu – that have been stamped over their work and friendship.
Hydra. There was an important chapter in the life of the three friends, but also a pole of attraction for Greeks and foreigners, intellectuals and artists. For Ghika he was the home of his childhood and later his refuge, his place of inspiration. For Livermore, “a source of happiness”, as he said, a retreat for the writing of his book “Mani” and for Craxton, a place of creation shortly before discovering his own paradise in Crete.
Chania. In 1947 Krassont visited Crete for the first time. One year later he returns and draws paintings on Cretan shepherds. The place and the people charm him and so in 1960 he decides to follow his dream and live in Chania, “in my beloved city, on my favorite island”. The house above the Venetian harbor became its main place of work. Many of his most famous paintings, with typical figures, scenes from everyday life, as well as landscapes of Cretan land, are created there.
Kardamyli. It is the place where Li Fermore will discover their own haven of paradise in the Peloponnese. Attracted by the nature of the area, his friend, Ghika, draws landscapes of Kardamili and creates works for decorating the house. Here Paddy, as he was his affectionate, will dedicate himself to the writing: “At last I could walk through the olive trees for hours, forming phrases and dissolve them in pieces again,” he writes.
Corfu. An old olive press at Sinias, Corfu, will be the new meeting and creation place for the three friends in the seventies. There, Ghika and Barbara’s wife will create a new “idyllic setting”, a welcoming “shelter of unique atmosphere and charm” that will inspire all three artists.
This article from Ekathimerini focuses on the new exhibition “Ghika – Craxton – Leigh Fermor: Charmed Lives in Greece” which opened recently at the Benaki Museum in Athens. It runs to 10 September so if you are in the city do drop by. Never fear, if you can’t make a trip to Athens, the exhibition moves to the British Museum in the Spring and we will update you all.
by Margarita Pournara
First published in Ekathimerini 14 June 2017.
I have often asked myself how an exhibition ultimately affects its audience. What kind of trace does it leave on the collective memory? The answer, I find, is that it depends on the show’s content and the circumstances under which it takes place. In these troubled times, so laden with insecurity and silent resignation, the exhibition that opened at Athens’s Benaki Museum on June 6 on a great friendship is like balsam to the soul.
“Ghika – Craxton – Leigh Fermor: Charmed Lives in Greece” is like a piece of precise needlework using the threads of history to take the audience back to 1945, when Greek painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika first met British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and painter John Craxton. The three became firm friends and over the ensuing 50 years drew inspiration from the Greek landscape, their readings on the country and the virtues of life here, leaving behind enduring impressions in their art and writings. The lives of the three became entwined in four different parts of the country, which is the exhibition’s departure point.
From the Ghika family home on the ridge of a hill on the Saronic island of Hydra, where the friendship was first cemented, to Paddy’s haven in Kardamyli in the southern Peloponnese, Craxton’s house with its unexpected view over the port of Hania on Crete and an old olive mill in Corfu that Ghika transformed into a home after his Hydra property was destroyed by fire, their relationship was defined by an almost constant and highly creative toing and froing between the personal paradises each man had created for himself.
“Each of these houses was a small universe that embodied their love for Greece, its countryside and the warmth of its people. Beyond these three and the wives of Ghika and Fermor, these homes were enjoyed by many others, Greeks and Britons and other guests, who came from abroad to get their own taste of the charms of life here,” says one of the exhibition’s four curators, Evita Arapoglou. Paintings, photographs, letters and drawings illustrate this 50-year journey.
How did the three men meet? It was shortly after World War II had ended and Greece was making an effort to promote its culture, literature and art abroad, with the help of the British Council and its offshoot, at the time, the British Institute.
Athens happened to be home to a group of Greek and British intellectuals – among them Lawrence Durrell, Steven Runciman, Rex Warner, as well as Giorgos Seferis, Giorgos Katsimbalis and Ghika – who helped spearhead the golden age of cooperation between the two countries, organizing soirees and exhibitions. One of the many things the Britons had in common was their attraction to the Greek people and countryside.
Ghika, who spent most of his adult life in France, also lived in London for a few years during this period. Fermor already knew Greece very well and Craxton, who was a close friend of Joan Leigh Fermor, was hooked from his first visit to the country.
The house on Hydra, which held a lot of childhood memories for Ghika but needed extensive renovations, was a revelation to the Fermors, who spent around two years there in the mid-1950s and which is where Patrick wrote the bulk of his book on Mani. Craxton was also a familiar figure there, where he would paint views of the small Saronic island. Ghika and his wife Barbara were indeed the perfect hosts.
When the house was destroyed by fire in the early 1960s, Ghika couldn’t bear to set foot on the island, so it fell to Craxton to go and see what could be salvaged from the ashes. That fire marked the end of the first chapter of three men’s friendship, which was rekindled when the Fermors moved to Kardamyli and Craxton to Hania. Toward the end of the decade, the Ghikas built their house in Corfu.
The wonderful exhibition at the Benaki is all about serendipity in another respect too, as the idea emerged from the meeting of four people with deep knowledge and admiration for the three friends. Arapoglou is the curator of the Greek collection at the Leventis Gallery in Nicosia and is an expert on Ghika, as well as having known Fermor and Craxton personally. Former British ambassador to Athens, historian and writer Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith knew Fermor and the archive he left behind very well, while Ian Collins wrote a monograph on Craxton, with whom he was friends. The fourth curator of the Athens show is Ioanna Moraiti, the Benaki’s archive director, and she was instrumental in helping the other three pool their knowledge and expertise.
When they were first brought together in 2014 thanks to Edmee Leventis, it became clear that the subject of Ghika, Fermor and Craxton’s close friendship and their relationship with Greece would make a wonderful theme for an exhibition. The project was funded by the Leventis Foundation and the show was first held at the Leventis Gallery in spring. After Athens, the exhibition will be shown at the British Museum.
A painter, sculptor, engraver, writer and academic, Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906-94) was the eldest of the three. He moved to Paris at the age of 17 to study art and soon developed a large intellectual and artistic circle of friends and acquaintances. While he was influenced by the trends and movements in Europe, like architect Dimitris Pikionis, his contemporary, Ghika also became increasingly interested in Greek folk art and tradition. He emerged as one of the greatest figures of the Thirties Generation and Hydra played a huge role in his work. Barbara was his second wife.
Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) was a restless scholar with a love of adventure. He discovered Greece while crossing Europe on foot at the age of 18. He returned in World War II, where he became a hero of the resistance and the mastermind behind the kidnapping of German General Heinrich Kreipe. He moved to Athens after the war, before the house in Kardamyli was built. He is the author of several wonderful books, including “Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese,” “Roumeli” and his three books about his journey across Europe, among others. His wife Joan was a photographer.
John Craxton (1922-2009) was the youngest of the bunch, a free spirit with a definite wanderlust. He found his ideal haven in Greece, and Crete in particular, where he was impressed by the people and their way of life. During his time there, he was regarded as one of Hania’s most recognizable personalities.
The exhibition is accompanied by a bilingual book with texts by the curators and an abundance of photographic material pertaining to the three friends’ lives.
“Ghika – Craxton – Leigh Fermor: Charmed Lives in Greece” runs through September 10 at the Benaki Museum’s main building (1 Koumbari & Vassilissis Sofias, tel 210.367.1000).
The Craxton exhibition has moved to Salisbury. Running until 7 May 2016, the exhibition is curated by Ian Collins, and explores the colourful life of artist John Craxton and his incredible emotional, physical and creative journey from Cranborne Chase to Crete.
From an early age Craxton lived with artists Cecil and Amy Waller near Farnham, a short walk from the Pitt-Rivers Museum, where he was inspired by art, archaeology and the landscape of Dorset. This exhibition shows his art as it changes from dark to light and as he moves across Europe to Crete, but the strength and importance of line in his work remains constant.
Location: The Salisbury Museum
This is a powerfully enjoyable combination. In this short clip Sir David Attenborough looks back at the art of John Craxton, Paddy’s book cover illustrator, whose paintings reflect the artist’s intense encounter with the natural world.
The full programme was first shown in on the BBC Culture Show in June 2011.
To watch the video click this link.
The Craxton exhibition, A Poetic Eye, opened recently by Sir David runs at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester from 28th March to 19th September 2015, moving to Salisbury Museum early in 2016. The Museum is open from 10.00am to 4.00pm, Monday to Saturday.
Sir David Attenborough introduces the new exhibition of paintings by his long-time friend John Craxton which has just opened at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.
Watch Sir David’s introduction on video here.
John Craxton (1922-2009) was one of the most interesting and individual British artists of the 20th century. His life story, starting with wanderings on Cranborne Chase, was as colourful as his later pictures of the light, life and landscapes of Greece.
A new exhibition at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester will chart Craxton’s journey from Cranborne to Crete, from early paintings of dark and menaced war-time landscapes to joyful scenes painted under bright Cretan skies.
“John Craxton was one of the art world’s best-kept secrets, but his reputation has surged since his death,” said exhibition curator Ian Collins.”The retrospective exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge earlier this year attracted a huge number of visitors and we are hoping for a similar reaction here.”
“This exhibition will bring together many paintings and drawings never previously exhibited,” said Jon Murden, Director of Dorset County Museum. “It covers an extraordinary range of work from his early life in rural Dorset to Greece where he lived after the Second World War.”
Born in London into a large, musical and bohemian family, Craxton’s nomadic habit began early – staying lengthily with relatives and family friends and briefly at school after school until being pronounced unteachable.
From an early age Craxton lodged with an artist uncle and aunt in an ancient cottage, a short walk from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Farnham. Within this Aladdin’s cave of treasures from all periods and places, Craxton educated himself in art history and archaeology while revelling in untamed Dorset.
At 14 he saw Picasso’s Guernica in Paris with the paint still wet, and at 16 he was drawing in the French capital until forced home by looming war. Rejected for military service, he drew his first masterpiece at 19 – heralding a long series of haunted paintings and drawings which were studies in entrapment. A procession of solitary figures in dark and threatened landscapes were all emblematic portraits of the artist himself.
Mentored by Graham Sutherland, and enjoying a close friendship with Lucian Freud, Craxton won youthful fame with pictures hailed as highlights of the Neo-Romantic movement (a label the artist hated). He had great charm and luck. In the week that the Craxton family home was blitzed, his textile designer friend EQ Nicholson was moving into Alderholt mill house, on the Dorset-Wiltshire border. Craxton moved in too, and reflected the surrounding scenery in many of his war-time pictures.
In the first post-war summer, of 1945, John and Lucian went to the Scilly Isles as stepping stones to warmer climes. A year later John Craxton led the partnership to Greece, where, while always travelling widely, he would be based for the rest of his life.
Pictures initially inspired by Samuel Palmer and William Blake, and then by Picasso and Miro, finally owed more and more to Cretan frescoes and Byzantine mosaics as Craxton developed a linear colour language all his own. His singular art evolved from dark to light and from disquiet to joy. But to the end he visited Cranborne Chase – with late elegiac paintings and drawings of dead elms which seemed to come full circle with his war-time pictures of six decades earlier.
The new exhibition at Dorset County Museum, curated by Ian Collins, John Craxton’s biographer and executor, will explore Craxton’s journey into light and colour – following his travels from Dorset to Greece. The exhibition will run from 28th March to 19th September 2015, moving to Salisbury Museum early in 2016. The Museum is open from 10.00am to 4.00pm, Monday to Saturday. Full details here.
Our favourite museum, the Benki, is presenting an exhibition dedicated to three creators, whose lives were bonded through common places: Hydra, Kardamyli, Corfu. Three houses-refuges, which became a source of artistic inspiration, and housed a friendship that lasted over 40 years.
Sir Patrick Leigh-Fermor, English travel writer, built his house in Kardamyli of Mani, a house that was later bequeathed to the Benaki Museum. There, he hosted since the 1960’s the painters N. H. Ghika and John Craxton, among other friends, whose works decorated the place.
Earlier, main feature for all three of them was Ghika’s manor in Hydra, “a perfect prose-factory” as it was called by Fermor, who lived there for two years, writing most of his book “Mani”.
John Craxton as well, was attracted by the landscape of Hydra and painted a series of them. His valuable help the days that folowed the fire at Ghika’s house in Hydra, in 1961, is described at their extensive correspondence. In one of these letters Craxton is suggesting to Niko and Barbara Ghika that perhaps it is about time to move on to other places. Indeed, the Corfu house was going to replace the void and become a new place of meeting and creation.
Letters, manuscripts, editions and photos are the main theme of the exhibition, accompanied by drawings by N. H. Ghika and John Craxton. Works of the above painters coming from the Fermor house in Kardamyli form a separate section at the exhibition which runs from 17 October 2014 to 10 January 2015. Further details here.
by Mark Sinclair
The final part of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s triology documenting his walk across Europe in the 1930s was published in September. Its cover by Ed Kluz, shown left, fulfilled an interesting brief – to offer something new but to keep in mind the tradition of Fermor’s illustrated covers, designed since the 1950s by the late John Craxton…
Read the article on the CR blogsite here.
For a few months in wartime London two 19-year-old artist friends shared a studio in the St John’s Wood area. Equal in talent and ambition, and equally patronised by wealthy aesthetes and some of the most fashionable painters and intellectuals of the day, they were toasted as the gilded future of English painting. One may fairly be said to have fulfilled the prediction – he was Lucian Freud. The other was John Craxton who, though he lived to be almost as venerable as his friend, and always retained a core of devoted admirers, is known hardly at all by the public at large today. The present retrospective show of 60 paintings and drawings by Craxton at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge offers an opportunity to mull over the vagaries of artistic reputation.
“There are moments when the London-born artist achieves a state close to ecstasy”
by Robin Blake.
First published in the Financial Times, 29 December 2013.
Vagary is a word that sorts well with Craxton’s career. His early London-based wartime work is a compendium of influences from four luminaries at whose feet the teenage Craxton sat: Graham Sutherland, Ben Nicholson, John Piper and Henry Moore. From Sutherland, who invited Craxton to Pembrokeshire in south Wales, came a line in quasi-surreal zoomorphic landscape, with some rather striking results; from Nicholson (channelling Picasso) a diluted form of cubism; and from Moore and Piper a group of drawings that mix fluent inked outlines and hatched shading with patches of atmospheric watercolour and gouache. Other early drawings have a Dürer-like touch with the Conté pencil, or else a fixation on a Samuel Palmer-esque “poet” dreaming in a rural landscape. Many of these works from the early and mid-1940s are extremely accomplished, showing just why they attracted attention; but seen in retrospect they are clearly apprentice work.
As the war ended, Craxton escaped from dingy, rubble-strewn London for Pembroke and the Scilly Isles (off southwest England), destinations that became a prelude to Greece, the land and climate of which he already dreamt. He finally reached the Aegean in 1946, and went on to Crete the following year, where he eventually established a life-long base. However, he was often restless, travelling to elsewhere in Greece and the Mediterranean. He returned from time to time to London where Freud and Francis Bacon were established, in their different ways, as stay-at-home painters of anxious, existential interiors. Craxton, on the other hand, was filling his paintings with light-filled Aegean landscapes and figures that danced and leapt, or lounged and slept, but were universally outlined in luminous colour. His subjects were Dionysian goats and youthful goatherds, taverna sailors and sirtaki dancers, mountain gorges and islands across the sea. His rejection of the label “neo-romantic” was about the prefix: he acknowledged that he was a romantic.
Craxton’s compositional signature, from his early years to much of the mature painting, is a preoccupation with the binary division of the canvas, and the balance of left and right, whereby the eye switches back and forth between two contrasting sides, or is impelled towards a central feature of interest such as a twisted tree. This kind of repetitive balancing can look compulsive and a touch academic, yet it is expressive of Craxton’s own nature, and this is also part of the key to the decline of his reputation.
Craxton lacked Freud’s near monomania for painting, for shrinking the world into the narrow space of a studio. Preferring the art of living, he spent much of his time in bars and tavernas, in conversation with a wide range of friends, and on journeys and excursions. So the compositional balances in his work – sun/moon, light/dark, mountain/cave – echo the balance he sought in his life, which was a perfectly sane objective, even though it resulted in a degree of creative vacillation, for which he coined the term “procraxtonation”. Incidentally he shared both the attitude and the indecision with another of Greece’s English residents, his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Craxton’s highly characteristic cover illustrations for Fermor’s books have probably since become his most widely seen works.
The inevitably thin catalogue of paintings that resulted from procraxtonation was not improved by bad reviews back in Britain, where the market for Craxton’s work chiefly lay. He had a solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery in January 1967, a bitterly cold month in the middle of a period when artistic London was distracted between Pop art and Abstract Expressionism. Unsurprisingly Craxton’s sun-filled modernist pastoral, tinged with Aegean mythology, was treated as a complacent, expatriate irrelevance. The golden boy had fallen headlong out of fashion, and he felt deeply discouraged.
We can see these works less sourly now. True, some seem patterned and formulaic, and they are a touch emotionally passive even as they celebrate the blazing passion for life that the Greeks call kefi. But in diverse and accepting times, there is plenty to be said for such positive and gently life-enhancing visions, while there are a few paintings in which Craxton transcends himself, and even achieves a state close to ecstasy. One of these is “Landscape with the Elements”, the cartoon for a tapestry commissioned in 1973 by Stirling University. It is in its own right an astounding success as a painting: a sumptuous, all-embracing canvas as grand and dazzling as a Turner or a Monet. Now owned by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, this vibrant dialogue of night and day gorgeously affirms young John Craxton’s flight from the grey ashes and black smuts of austerity Britain, and his refusal, in spirit, ever to come back.
Until April 21. Find out more at the Fitzwilliam Museum website.
A delightful drawing by Paddy of John Craxton who was the illustrator of all of Paddy’s books from A Time to Keep Silence onwards. It was sent to me by Artemis Cooper who says ‘It’s a very good likeness of JC’.
Paddy’s writing is rather faint but he has written:
‘Johnny is always painting goats browsing on olive branches, which lays the country bare…’
The auction house Christies will present the principal contents of Mill Farm, Dumbleton for auction at their sale rooms at 85 Old Brompton Road London, Greater London SW7 3LD, on Tuesday 15 May 2012.
The collection includes furniture, books, silverware, and many works of art. How many of these were collected by Joan and Paddy, and which came from their families is difficult to assess.
You can view the e-catalogue here.
Remember that you don’t have to be present to buy but can bid on-line as described in the catalogue. I hope that some of you have the opportunity to make a purchase.
Eleven years ago in London, at the crowded wake for Southwold-linked artist Prunella Clough, I found myself squashed against a figure of legend. This was John Craxton.
by Ian Collins
First published in EADT24, 17 June 2011
At 21 he had been the great – brilliant, handsome, life-and-soul-of-the-party – hope of war-time British art. But he had always wanted out.
Surveying the flowing white hair, wild moustache and glintful eye in this image of an elderly Cretan chieftain, who even sported a shepherd’s stick and woven rucksack, I said: “Good grief! I thought you were…in Greece.”
Actually, I had somehow imagined him ascended to another kind of Arcadia presaged in his joyful paintings and the ballet sets he designed for lover Margot Fonteyn. Rumour had it that Craxton had long since vanished into a Greek idyll. But he came and went, mostly below the radar of an art world he had good reason to scorn.
We went off to the French pub in Soho where he had drunk since 1941, and then to a meal in Chinatown. And so began almost a decade of making merry.
Like many another art writer, I begged to write his biography (while secretly keeping notes from our first meeting). He refused. Hating a slim book from 1948, he had spurned intrusion and hack analysis ever after. Why ruin a friendship?
He changed his mind following a brush with death and my 2005 Making Waves account of artists in Southwold for which he had been a key informant.
We then worked happily together on the picture-led book he wanted, to be published for his 90th birthday, in October 2012. He said I could write the full biography once he was “out of the way”.
Alas, John died 18 months ago and I am his art executor. The book published this week is his first memorial.
We have just had four launches in London – a preview at Christie’s, and then receptions around exhibitions in Tate Britain, Mayfair’s Osborne Samuel gallery and Heywood Hill’s Bookshop in Curzon Street. The shows go on.
Being charming, John had a charmed collection of friends. One was Sir David Attenborough – whom I asked to speak at his memorial service and on the Radio 4 Last Words programme (an early call since he was off to Australia that afternoon).
He introduces my book (our meetings plotted between his trips to Africa and the North Pole) and this week presented a Craxton profile on BBC2’s The Culture Show.
So: why our obsession with John Craxton? Well, he painted pleasure and lived it, too. He had a matchless love of life.
He had great luck always, and the first was with his musical, Bohemian parents. They raised six children and numerous waifs and strays in a chaotic haven next to Lord’s cricket ground.
The future novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, sharing a tutor with John at one point and now living in Bungay, says: “They were happy and, like pollen, some of this rubbed off on anyone who came in contact with them.”
One school chum’s father was Eric Kennington, and John was part of the party lent a Walberswick house in the summer of 1937 as a token of thanks for the sculptor’s fine memorial to artist Arthur Dacres Rendall in the churchyard.
John Craxton book cover.John Craxton book cover.
Seventy years later John could recall with perfect clarity the reasons for their delight in Southwold’s painted rood screen.
Another school pal’s dad took him to Paris to see Picasso’s newly-painted Guernica and then, early in the war, a lodger introduced him both to patron Peter Watson and a mercurial young painter called Lucian Freud (fresh from the Cedric Morris and Lett Haines East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing in Dedham).
For more than two years Peter Watson funded their studios in a St John’s Wood maisonette. The close friends became fantastically inventive draughtsmen.
John’s dashing eldest brother was a test pilot for Spitfires, and during the war John and Lucian stayed in the Fens with the family of Joan Bayon, one of brother Tim’s girlfriends.
Along nearby dykes John spied the gnarled and twisted forms of pollarded willows, which he then depicted both as tormented monsters and hiding places for lost boys.
Joan’s father was a scientist who received parcels of beastly corpses for post mortem. The two young artists worked on portraits of the contents – John’s ravishing images like those of a latter-day Durer.
From Cambridgeshire he wrote to his friend and patroness E.Q. Nicholson: “The willow trees are nice & amazing but I would prefer an olive tree growing out of a Greek ruin…”
Spotted at the Leicester Galleries – one of the few in London to stay open during the war – John was invited to produce pen-and-ink and lithographic decorations for what became a celebrated book.
Visionary Poems and Passages or The Poet’s Eye, an anthology chosen by Geoffrey Grigson, was published by Cowell’s of Suffolk in 1944. John worked on the plates to the very last minute in the Ipswich printshop.
That landed him with the label of a Neo-Romantic artist, recreating the world in his own anxious image. But there was nothing Neo about him: here was the complete individual and original.
Mentored by Graham Sutherland and John Piper, his influences moved from Samuel Palmer and William Blake to Miro and Picasso. He finally met the latter in Paris in 1946 – the year of his liberation.
At a dinner party in Zurich (where Peter Watson had got him an exhibition), he met Lady Norton, wife of the British Ambassador in Athens, who was seeking provisions abroad in a borrowed bomber.
They bonded at once and the return flight carried an extra passenger. The not-quite-stowaway never looked back.
After travels all over the Aegean (and extended stays on Poros and Hydra), he settled in an ancient Venetian house in Crete, on the harbour at Hania, in 1960.
Returning to London for regular, sporadic and then rare exhibitions (also bringing his Greek pictures to life in set and costume designs for Daphnis and Chloe, a 1951 ballet by Suffolk’s Frederick Ashton starring the beloved Margot), he was really ever after an Englishman abroad.
Even if produced in his North London bolt-hole, his scintillating linear paintings celebrated a southern paradise – of cats, goats, drinking and dancing and sleeping sailors, light, heat, colour, rocky landscape and the survival of mythology in everyday existence. For these blissful works he drew on both a revitalised Cubism and Byzantine mosaics.
Sour critics who found his mature art too sunny, decorative, playful and altogether too gay suggested the envy of people left off the guestlist for a life-long party.
An enforced break from Greece during the dictatorship of the Colonels brought African wanderings. A 1970 image of an old lion at a Kenyan watering hole was bought by singer Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten’s partner. It now hangs in a ground-floor study at The Red House in Aldeburgh, which the composer of the opera Death in Venice used when he could no longer climb the stairs to his former workroom.
In fact, Pears had been buying Craxtons since 1950, amassing portraits of Greek dancers and shepherds, as well as haunted war-time landscapes.
Looking at these works it is easy to see why the artist wanted to escape from cold, grey, conflicted and constricted England – as is the sense of exhilarated freedom later conveyed to those he left behind.
Ian’s John Craxton book, introduced by Sir David and with 240 images, is published by Lund Humphries and is available at Amazon.
Today we can celebrate the memory of Patrick Leigh Fermor, whether we attend his memorial service in London, or are just able to take a moment to reflect on all he gave to his family, his many friends, to us his admiring readers, and of course his service to his country and to Greece.
I thought the best way to mark this day on the blog is to feature this fine photograph sent to me by John Chapman. It is from Ian Collin’s book about the life and work of John Craxton, the artist who illustrated most of Paddy’s book covers.
John tells me that Craxton “met Joan in wartime London years before he met Paddy, but became enamoured of Greece and for a large part of his life lived in Chania, Crete. It was both an escape from dull northern climes and a chance to express his sexuality.”
Craxton designed the sets for Daphnis & Chloe at the Royal Opera House in 1951 where the lead ballerina at the time was Margot Fonteyn. According to rumour they had an affair, and in the summer of 1951 they cruised together around the Meditterranean. Paddy was their guide to Greece, and it was at this time that this delightful photograph was taken which shows Paddy looking very happy, with good friends, and his much loved Joan.
The photograph shows Tom Fisher (a New York attorney and husband of Ruth Page) Paddy, Joan, John Craxton, Margot Fonteyn, Frederick Ashton and Ruth Page (choreographer). It was taken in the theatre at Epidavros, and is attributed to Costas Achillopoulos.
by John Craxton
First published in The Independent Wednesday, 7 September 1994
Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas (Nikos Ghika), artist: born Athens 26 February 1906; Hon RA 1986; married 1961 Barbara Warner (nee Hutchinson; died 1989); died Athens 3 September 1994.
It was in 1945 that Peter Watson, the owner and art editor of Horizon magazine, asked me to look at some photographs of paintings by a Greek artist which had just arrived through the post. I remember well our enthusiasm for their freshness, clarity and strength. Their subject was inspired by houses in Hydra, the geometry of which was full of Mediterranean light. The style was a revitalised Cubism. It was at once decided to reproduce the paintings in Horizon.
That autumn I met the painter himself – Nikos Ghika – on his first visit to London. I found an immediate rapport with him, talking to this seemingly most English of Greeks, elegantly dressed, serious, charming, approachable. Like so many of my fellow artists then I had a deep desire to go south to the Mediterranean. Greece was very much on my mind. To find a sympathetic artist who would welcome me in his native country gave me added impetus. I mention this first meeting with Ghika, for it is quite typical of how European painters are often cross-pollinated by chance encounters.
Next year, in May 1946, it was my good luck to find myself in Athens. There began a friendship with Ghika which lasted till his stoic death 48 years later.
Ghika was always aware of the importance of influences, both unexpected and those discovered by intent. These happen all the time in the arts, in music especially. In 1922 Ghika determined at the early age of 16 that he would go to Paris to continue his studies as a painter. He was already a mature student, raised in a cultivated European Athenian society, and was gifted with languages. A year later he was exhibiting in the Salon des Independants. His first one-man show was held in 1927 and presented by Maurice Raynal. These years were a wonderfully fertile period for a young painter. Ghika enjoyed a close friendship with most of the leading painters and poets of the time, especially Jean Arp and Jean Helion, with whom he had a joint exhibition in 1934. On this occasion, Ghika showed paintings and some stunning bas-reliefs which reveal how rapidly his artistry had developed.
Back in Athens later in 1934 he began to plan the publication of The Third Eye, a Greek-language monthly review of arts and letters, in which Ghika and his friends published the works of avant- garde painters and sculptors, such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, and of writers not previously translated into Greek, among whom were Matila Ghyka, Alfred Jarry (Ubu-Roi) and James Joyce (Ulysses). Ghika himself was represented by his essays on ‘Elements of a Language of Plastic Art’, ‘Introduction to Harmonic Tracings’, and ‘Introduction to the Law of Numbers in Art and Technique’. The seeds of the modern movement had reached Greece, but were broadcast on very rocky terrain.
Once returned to his homeland, Ghika discovered that his rejuvenated philosophy of Cubism already had deep roots in medieval Greek painting: reversed perspectives, dismissal of the horizon line, economical use of colour and colour used emotionally rather than descriptively. These aesthetics are to be found in Byzantine art, for example in the mosaic of the city of Nazareth; in the church of Karye Tzami in Constantinople. What was dismissed in the 19th century as primitive, was now accepted as an escape from the tyranny of photographic representation. Painters were now free to find joy in transformation instead of being restricted by imitation. This was the freedom that Ghika reintroduced to his native country.
From his earliest years Ghika was an outstanding example of what a serious artist must be in order to survive. He was born with a naturally searching mind, the essential equipment of a creative artist. Furthermore, he was intelligent, human, and knowledgeable, inquisitive, learned, and daring. He possessed, too, a towering dignity and an aristocratic presence. Fortunately, he could also be mockingly witty, satirical, and full of fun. How else could he have translated so sympathetically Edward Lear’s ‘Yonghy-Bonghy- Bo’ into Greek?
Ghika was in his element designing for the ballet and the theatre. He was an architect of originality, an illustrator of books, a superb etcher. He created some of the most lovely and inventive sculpture, much of it inspired by ancient themes. He animated whatever materials came into his beautiful hands. Deep down he was a classicist at heart; form and content always in happy union. There is no mistaking his style; he made no paintings that lacked underlying form and all of them respected the scale and dimensions of his canvases.
Into his sometimes hidden geometries he poured his poetry of light and darkness, infusing colour into his forms with unmatched confidence, inventiveness, and authority. Always hand in hand with imagination, he let the spirit of poetry invade the labyrinthine city and moonlit walls. Here were landscapes radiant and full of joy as well as of enigma and mystery, so rare these days when so much art is paper- thin.
Ghika was a lesson to all young artists for he drew endlessly, helped by an astonishing visual memory. I have never seen a drawing by him that was not searchingly elegant or clearly structural and informative. A recent book of his caricatures is my constant delight. His last years, despite the gnawing loss of his wife Barbara whom he mourned privately, and his failing eyesight, were borne with true stoicism. Fortunately, an Indian summer of recognition in his own land was a solace to him. This final period saw the publication of many superbly produced books on him and by him, among them Ghika: Drawings, by Evita Arapoglou (1992), and Ghika, by Jean-Francois Bonhomme (1993).
It is to the credit of the English that the first retrospective exhibition of his painting was held at the British Council in Athens in 1946, that he had six one-man exhibitions in London from 1953 onwards, and a major retrospective at the Whitechapel in 1968. He was elected an Honorary Royal Academician in 1986.
Like all great artists, Nico Ghika was an inspirer. He would rebuke all who claimed painting to be easy. Those whose way of painting seems to declare ‘I can do that, too’, would do well to gaze on Ghika’s art and recognise his individuality.
John Craxton was the first choice illustrator for many of Paddy’s books. An exceptionally talented artist, he died in 2009 aged 87 years. You can read his obituary here.
In this article from the Spectator first published in 2004, Andrew Lambirth talks to John Craxton about the recreation of his designs for Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe choreographed by Frederick Ashton.
John Craxton (born 1922) is a painter who has spent much of his life in Greece. Growing up in an intensely musical family in Hampstead (his father was the first pianist to play Debussy in England, his sister was a celebrated oboist), he was aware from a very early age of the infinite and magical connections between sound and the visual image. His subsequent work as a painter has all the structure one expects of a great composer: his are paintings which sing of their substance.
Craxton first went to Greece in 1946, staying on Poros, an island renowned for its ravishing charm (Lawrence Durrell called it ‘the happiest place I have ever known’). In 1951, Craxton shared digs with Patrick Leigh Fermor. Apparently, Leigh Fermor’s preferred regimen was to taverna-crawl by day and write by night. Craxton, ever the sociable, found painting by night difficult because of the lack of proper lighting. A big picture was on the go, but progress was somewhat hesitant. Then came a telegram from England.
Craxton already knew Frederick Ashton slightly, so the suggestion that he design a ballet for him was not completely unlikely, though it was unexpected. Suddenly the artist had to decide: stay in Greece and work on his picture, or up sticks and go back to London. The seductive Mediterranean or the ration books of old England? Uncertain what to do, Craxton went to see an old friend who happened to be ill in bed at the time, fiddled with his radio and tuned in to — Ravel. It was Daphnis and Chloe, the very music of Ashton’s ballet.
A sign like that (no doubt from the gods themselves) cannot be ignored. Craxton returned to London, and in a very few months designed the decor for Ashton’s ballet. Craxton made only one stipulation, that the costumes be modern dress, not ancient Greek, an idea that Ashton was open to. That was in 1951. The principal dancers were Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes. Daphnis and Chloe was a notable success, and it has remained in the Covent Garden repertoire ever since, revived from time to time with new input from Craxton. Now it is being staged again. The main problem for the designer was that nearly all his designs, sets and costumes had been done away with, in one of those senseless purges which from time to time disfigure great institutions.
Only two costumes survived this petty holocaust — the ones which Margot Fonteyn had herself given to the Opera House’s archive. Nor were there drawings from which the originals might be recreated, for many of them had come about through the combined efforts of Craxton, Ashton and Fonteyn. Time was short, and the three not only shared a common artistic aim, but also understood how the project might be realised. Costumes could even be improvised from a bolt of cloth, if necessary. For that original production, Craxton painted all the scenery by hand himself. To recreate it in 2004, he had to rely on his memory, a few photographs and the album cover of a Decca long-playing record of the ballet. Rather amazingly, Craxton has triumphantly summoned forth once more his enchanted island setting, with cave-mouth, vine pergola, barren rocks and fig and olive trees. I visited him at the Royal Opera House production workshops in Bow Industrial Park in east London. There he was putting the finishing touches to some olive trees, which he was painting on their sides.
He recalled his original task, more than half a century ago. ‘I was very lucky at that time in Clement Glock, the woman who ran the paint department, who was a very good scene-painter, and rather a sophisticated person altogether. She had worked with Sutherland, Piper and Derain and people like that. Her idea was to get the painter to do his own scenery as much as possible, so that it actually looked as if he’d painted it rather than it being an imitation of his style. So that’s what I did, working with enormous brushes on 60-ft lengths in the paint room at Covent Garden.’ (The paint frame by which vast flats can be readily manipulated was done away with in the recent ROH makeover.)
Craxton explains the ballet’s plot, which features pirates, a near-rape and the intervention of Pan. ‘There are two stories really — the original story by Longus (about 2nd- or 3rd-century AD) which the ballet is based on, and the version that Diaghilev and Ravel came up with in 1912. The whole thing is very Arcadian — like a Pompeian Barbara Cartland novel. It’s really a pastoral romance in which two young people, a girl and boy, awaken to sexual desire and fall in love.’ Craxton used a late Greek story to convey what he knew about contemporary Greece. He enjoyed the challenge of it. ‘What I wanted to avoid was a lack of unity between the decor and the dancers. I wanted them to be the same scale, which was much easier to achieve if I was painting the scenery myself and not having my drawings blown up by others.’
This was Craxton’s first ballet, but the painting of scenery was relatively straightforward for an easel painter. He was, however, a novice costume designer, having no idea how to make a dress, and to begin with he was forced to rely on the wardrobe department. Requesting an absolutely classical lady’s dress, he was presented with a 1938 short cocktail dress, as he describes it, ‘off the shoulder, pleated — dreadful. I went to see what had been done with Margot and Freddie and I was practically in tears. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. Margot was brilliantly clever and sensed the terrible state I was in with worry and disappointment and said, “I don’t think this is really what John wants at all.” So she got the material together and started to bunch it up and designed a costume with a tight bodice and loose skirt. Only Margot could have done that. We found a material called stockingette, which hung very well and dyed very well.
‘What I tried to do was make a group of harmonic colours for the shepherdesses, so the colours relate together like a chord, leaving me freedom to have the temptress in Schiaparelli pink, and Chloe in yellow. When I first did the costumes I put Chloe in yellow, but because the lighting was so primitive then, her dress came out rather beige. There was a girl in the row of shepherdesses who was dressed in pink. Her dress shone out so brightly that Margot said, “I’m having that dress.” But for this new production I’ve put Chloe in yellow as I wanted from the beginning. A simple naive girl wouldn’t be wearing pink, but primrose yellow.’
The current decor is almost identical to the original production, though slightly more complicated. ‘In 1951, the decor was very much simpler. It had one big backcloth in the first scene, and the tails, which are those flats on either side of the stage, were just plain blue material. There was no time to do anything to them. It was all an incredible rush, but that’s showbiz. It was only for a later production that Freddie said, “What about making some tails with rocks and trees,” and that’s roughly what you see today.’
Now the rocks in scene two have been redesigned and painted porphyry red to make them more menacing, and there’s a new drop curtain. The pirates are all dressed in black as Cretans. The ballet really looks like one of Craxton’s own paintings come to life — ‘It was the only honest way I could do it. I couldn’t have done a pastiche of ancient Greece — it’s not me. It was one of the first Mediterranean ballets, based on my own experiences in Poros and Crete.’ For this reason, Craxton’s sets have an authenticity which is as compelling as it is beguiling.
An event in memory of the late English artist was held last week at the British Embassy in Athens, and Paddy was there.
The early works of John Craxton evoked an ‘arcadian’ feel but later became more schematic. Cubism and other 20th-century movements had an influence on his work.
First published in Ekathimerini online on 21 April 2010
By A Koroxenidis
When the late English painter John Craxton (1922-2009) first visited Greece in the mid-1940s he discovered what he called “human identities,” a world that suited him and was to soon become his home.
In the 60s Craxton settled in Hania, Crete, in a house facing the old harbor. He led a simple bohemian life, appreciated the local lifestyle and explored the country’s cultural history, especially the Byzantine churches on the island. For many years, he also served as as Britain’s consular correspondent in Hania.
His friends and the people close to him, who gathered last week at the British Embassy in an event dedicated to Craxton’s memory, remember him as a talented artist, an intellectual, a generous, straightforward and well-mannered person who had humor, sophistication and an optimist view of life. A learned artist, Craxton was part of an intellectual international milieu.
Following an opening by British Ambassador to Athens Dr David Landsman, novelist and playwright Paris Takopoulos, who met Craxton in London in the late 1940s, referred to the artist’s knowledge of Greek modern culture and also spoke of the great value that Craxton placed on friendship. He also noted that Craxton was an excellent critic of art.
Maria Vassilaki, associate professor of Byzantine art at the University of Thessaly, was another longtime friend of Craxton. [Maria was co-curtaor of the Byzantium 330-1453 Exhibition – see myByzantine blog]
Vassilaki spoke of his [Craxton’s] deep knowlege of Byzantine art and of their long conversations on Byzantine art and culture, on which they had planned to publish a book. Craxton had abandoned the idea but Vassilaki has edited the book and plans to publish it with Crete University Press.
Journalist (formerly at Kathimerini) and writer Maria Karavia mused upon her memories of Craxton and his friendship with the painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, with whom he stayed whenever he visited Athens. Her warm memories include Craxton’s tender and colorful use of the Greek language.
The British author Sir Patrick “Paddy” Leigh Fermor was also among the speakers. Craxton and Leigh Fermor had worked together on a number of projects, with the former illustrating the covers of many of the latter’s books.
Born to musician parents, Craxton was raised in an artistic and intellectual family. He studied art in Paris and, as a young artist, produced paintings of an “arcadian” feel. His first visits to Greece inspired him in the designs for a 1951 production of the ballet “Daphnis et Chloe” by the Royal Ballet.
A major retrospective on his work was held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1967. In 1993, Craxton was elected Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
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
Published Tuesday, 10 June 2003
Muse who enlivened a distinguished generation
Like all adorable people Joan Leigh Fermor had something enigmatic about her nature which, together with her wonderful good looks, made her a very seductive presence.
Joan Elizabeth Eyres Monsell, photographer: born London 5 February 1912; married 1939 John Rayner (marriage dissolved 1947), 1968 Patrick Leigh Fermor; died Kardamyli, Greece 4 June 2003.
Like all adorable people Joan Leigh Fermor had something enigmatic about her nature which, together with her wonderful good looks, made her a very seductive presence.
She was also naturally self- effacing. Even in a crowd she maintained a deep and private inner self. In fact I know she regarded every agora with phobia. Paradoxically, she loved good company and long and lasting friendships. It was her elegance, luminous intelligence, curiosity, understanding and unerring high standards that made her such a perfect muse to her lifelong companion and husband Patrick Leigh Fermor, as well as friend and inspiration to a host of distinguished writers, philosophers, painters, sculptors and musicians.
Cyril Connolly described her in a letter to his mother in 1949 as “a person with whom I have everything in common – friends, tastes, intellectual interests – and very beautiful: tall, fair, slanting eyes, yellow skin”. For the future editor of the Times Literary Supplement Alan Pryce-Jones, 17 years earlier, she was
very fair, with huge myopic blue eyes. Her voice had a delicious quaver – no, not quite quaver, an undulation rather in it; her talk was unexpected, funny, clear-minded. She had no time for inessentials; though she was a natural enjoyer, she was also a perfectionist whom [aged 20] experience had already taught to be wary.
When I first met her in 1942 through Peter Watson, owner and founder with Connolly of Horizon magazine, she was living as his neighbour in the only modern block of flats in London, 10 Palace Gate, designed by Welles Coates. She was a dazzling beauty and I, an awkward 20-year-old, was utterly stage-struck when she invited me to dance with her one evening at the very smart Boeuf sur le Toit night-club. The manager tried to remove me as I was wearing sandals, but was promptly reprimanded by Joan.
By wonderful good fortune she was already in Greece when in May 1946 I turned up for the first time in Athens, where she introduced me one evening to Paddy Leigh Fermor, who with his knowledge of the Greek countryside near Athens was instrumental in finding me a place to live and paint on the island of Poros. Joan’s love of Greece and the Greeks started, like mine, from this time.
Athens just after the Second World War was host to a unique group of marvellously talented men and women that included the philhellenes Steven Runciman, Maurice Cardiff, Lady Norton and Osbert Lancaster (whose secretary she had been), the Anglophile Greek painter Nico Ghika, the poet George Seferis and George Katsimbalis, Henry Miller’s colossus of Maroussi.
Anyone who thought foolishly that Joan herself was not really doing anything was as far from the truth as it is possible to get. Her unwavering empathy, generosity, taste and intelligence made her a creative catalyst to all who became her friends. Later on, Constant Lambert, Giacometti, Francis Bacon, Dadie Rylands, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Balthus, Maurice Bowra and Freddie Ayer, to name only a few, were all devoted admirers.
Joan herself was at that time one of the finest amateur photographers in England. Her photographs were first published, through her friend John Betjeman, in the Architectural Review, and then in Horizon, and are to be found in her husband Paddy’s books about Greece – Mani: travels in the southern Peloponnese (1958) and Roumeli: travels in northern Greece (1966). In 1948 she was employed by Cyril Connolly to be his photographer for a guidebook to south-west France, a book he never wrote, perhaps because, as he recorded in his journal, he “fell very much in love”, distracted by
her dark green cardigan and grey trousers, her camera slung over her shoulder and her golden hair bobbing as she walks, always a little fairer than you think, like the wind in a stubble-field.
During the war she was commissioned to take photographs of buildings vulnerable to bombing. After it a favourite subject was cemeteries – in Paris (Père la Chaise), notably, and Genoa. Somehow I never dared ask her why she gave up photography. It was always foolish to ask Joan a question when one already had a jolly good idea of what the answer might be: probably she did not think she was good enough.
At one time she owned a large convertible Bentley, appropriately nicknamed Moloch. It guzzled petrol as a row of thirsty Lombardy poplars needs water. One summer we set off in it with Paddy to drive to Italy, Joan at the wheel all the way, to meet up with Tom Fisher, Ruth Page, Freddy Ashton and Margot Fonteyn at the Villa Cimbroni in Ravello. We made frequent stops to explore Romanesque churches and eat unforgettable meals in little out-of-the-way restaurants, serving exactly the kind of French cooking admired and written about by Elizabeth David, whom Joan herself so much revered.
Joan and I shared a lifelong affection for cats. Paddy had less admiration and called them “interior desecrators and downholsterers”. Greek cats are good examples of a feline Parkinson’s Law. They prosper. Joan managed to have a large and endearing accumulation of them. One could not call them a collection; they were more like a flock, with Joan their shepherdess, handing out free meals. They repaid her generosity by offering her in winter a duvet of living fur for her bed.
With her beloved brother, Graham Eyres Monsell, she shared an exceptionally good and discerning ear for music. Her collection of eclectic and legendary performances of records was a constant joy for her and all her musical friends. Unfortunately, the vinyl long-playing discs made themselves irresistibly attractive to Greek dust.
She was born Joan Eyres Monsell in 1912, the second of three daughters of Bolton Eyres Monsell, the Conservative MP for South Evesham, later First Lord of the Admiralty and first Viscount Monsell. He had adopted the “Eyres” on his marriage in 1904 to Joan’s mother, Sybil Eyres, heiress to Dumbleton Hall in Worcestershire (subject of two Betjeman poems). Joan went to school at St James’s, Malvern, where in seven years she regretted that she learnt no Latin or Greek; all they taught, she said, was how to curtsy. She was “finished” in Paris and Florence.
When Alan Pryce-Jones fell in love with her in 1932, the First Lord saw him off. “I gather you want to marry my daughter,” he said. “What is your place? And what job have you?” Pryce-Jones had no “place” and no job. “And so, Pryce-Jones, having nothing, without prospects, without a home, you expect to marry my daughter, who has always had the best of everything . . . No, no, Pryce-Jones, come back in a few years when you have something behind you.”
Instead, two months before war broke out in 1939, she married John Rayner, then features editor of the Daily Express, but the marriage did not last, and they divorced in 1947. She served as a nurse, and then worked in the cipher department of embassies overseas, in Spain, then in Algiers and in Cairo, where she moved in the set that included Lawrence Durrell, Robin Fedden and Charles Johnston. It was in Cairo that she met Paddy Leigh Fermor.
She was happiest living with Paddy in what must be the most beautiful house in the Peloponnese, at Kardamyli in the Mani, which she and Paddy built of stone for themselves by the sea on a low promontory between two small bays. “Of course that big room,” John Betjeman wrote to the Leigh Fermors in 1969, “is one of the rooms in the world.”
Joan Leigh Fermor was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. Apart from beauty and acute intelligence, she had to an unusual degree genuine goodness, both natural and willed, which informed all her actions and relationships. Her great generosity was as natural as discreet, based on her perceptive understanding of those less privileged or lucky than herself.
I first met Joan and Paddy when I married my English husband and settled in London in the early 1960s. Their house in Chelsea was always full of guests, and Joan was the most gracious and informal of hostesses. But unlike some hostesses she did not care whether her guests were successful or not, famous or obscure. I never heard her pronounce a second-hand opinion about a book or a picture. She helped both maternally and with friendship many an impecunious writer and artist whose work she liked, and her sympathy extended to all those to whom life had dealt less favourable cards.
Joan was not religious – just saintly. And although not a believer she was deeply spiritual, to me an example of alma naturalis Christiana. Although she had no children, she had a few daughters and sons – among whom I hoped to be counted – who adored her. She made one feel that, as long as she was there, all was not ill with the world.
Shusha Guppy (whose obituary can be read here)
From The Independent