Tag Archives: John Craxton

John Craxton ‘A Poetic Eye’: A life in art from Cranborne Chase to Crete

John Craxton working on Pastoral for P.W., 1948 Photograph by Felix Man

John Craxton working on Pastoral for P.W., 1948 Photograph by Felix Man

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


David Attenborough on John Craxton


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.

A Poetic Eye: John Craxton on Cranborne Chase and Crete

Figure in Tree Lithograph by John Caxton (1944)

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.

Ghika – Fermor – Craxton: 3 places, 3 creators

From the left: Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas, John Craxton, Barbara Hutchinson-Ghika, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Lydia Aous, 1958

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.

Patrick Leigh Fermor: journey’s end book cover

plfhome2_0A short article from the Creative Review about the book covers for Paddy’s work.  A must read as it is full of beautiful pictures of Craxton book covers. Best seen on on a big computer screen.

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.

A World of Private Mystery: John Craxton, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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.

Defense de Craxtonner

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…’

Defense de Craxtonner by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Related articles:

Remembering John Craxton – an influential art giant and a lover of life

A sign from the gods

Paddy’s Illustrator – John Craxton Telegraph Obituary