Tag Archives: Lucian Freud

The art of friendship in post-war Greece

Still Life with Three Sailors (1980–85), John Craxton. Private collection. © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Still Life with Three Sailors (1980–85), John Craxton. Private collection. © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS


The first of a few articles reminding us of the genius of John Craxton as his new biography by Ian Collins – John Craxton: A Life of Gifts  – is published by Yale University Press.  Craxton was book cover artist for most of Paddy’s books, friend to Paddy and Joan, as well as Lucian Freud, and lover of Margot Fonteyn.

By Tom Fleming. First published in Apollo Magazine June 2018.

John Craxton disliked being described as a ‘neo-Romantic’ artist, preferring to be known as a ‘kind of Arcadian’. He spent most of his life in Crete, where his enjoyment of the Mediterranean lifestyle was in inverse proportion to the rate at which he finished his paintings (he termed it ‘procraxtonation’). He never quite shed the label of a promising talent who had failed to develop. But he did not regret moving away from England. His work may not be as celebrated as that of his friend Lucian Freud, with whom he first went to Greece in 1946 (and later fell out), but it has a joie de vivre that speaks of a life well lived, one in which Greece played a fundamental part. As he wrote later, he preferred to live ‘in an atmosphere where life is considered more important than art – where life is itself an Art’.

Those last words could be the strapline for ‘Charmed Lives in Greece’ at the British Museum. It focuses on three friends – Craxton, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika – who met just after the Second World War and remained close for almost 50 years thanks to a shared attachment to the pleasures of Greek life. Through artwork, letters, photographs and notebooks, the exhibition builds up a kind of group biography, structured loosely around the various homes they made for themselves.

Pine trees in Poros (1949), Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika. Ghika Gallery, Benaki Museum, Athens

Pine trees in Poros (1949), Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika. Ghika Gallery, Benaki Museum, Athens

The most spectacular of these was Ghika’s family villa on the island of Hydra, with its nine terraces dug into the steep hillside overlooking the harbour. Born in 1906, the son of a distinguished admiral, Ghika was an elegant and much-liked painter who had studied in Paris during his youth, returning to Greece in the 1930s. Like several of his generation, he brought modernist sensibilities to bear on the renascent national culture of the period, and was a busy presence in Greek life. He set about restoring the Hydra house in 1936 and with his first wife made it a stopping point for anyone and everyone.

Leigh Fermor and his girlfriend (later wife) Joan became regular guests after the war. Paddy, as he was known, was famous around Greece for his exploits with the Cretan resistance against the Germans. In the early 1950s he and Joan stayed at Ghika’s house for two years while Ghika was travelling, during which time Paddy (never a stranger to using other people’s houses as writing retreats) constructed most of Mani (1958), his book about the southern Peloponnese. A product of his near-exhaustless curiosity about Greek history and culture, Mani is full of the lyricism and ebullience that defined his prose. Quotations from his writings are displayed around the exhibition, as evocative in their way as the many images. It was Craxton who illustrated the cover for Mani, and he did the same for all of Leigh Fermor’s subsequent books.

Moonlit Ravine (early 1970s), John Craxton. Private collection © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Moonlit Ravine (early 1970s), John Craxton. Private collection © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

Craxton, too, stayed for long periods at Ghika’s house. He was impressed by the way Ghika’s art fused Cubist and Byzantine elements, and their influence on each other is clear when you see their paintings side by side. They both enjoyed painting the dramatic Hydra landscape. Craxton developed a palette that included near-fluorescent greens and blues, using them to convey the heat and light of the Greek terrain. A Hydra panorama from 1963–67 and a Cretan ravine painting from the early 1970s are some of the exhibition highlights.

In 1960, Craxton moved permanently to Crete, occupying an old Venetian house in the port of Chania. A photograph taken by John Donat from Craxton’s terrace that year, with the artist’s aluminium teapot on the stone in the foreground, a few fishermen in the harbour below and the sea stretching out above to fill most of the picture, magnificently evokes the Cretan atmosphere. A year later Ghika’s house in Hydra burned down, and soon afterwards he and his second wife converted an old olive press in Corfu. Around the same time, the Leigh Fermors built a home on the Peloponnese coast, near Kardamyli. A photograph from 1965 shows Leigh Fermor in a traditional dance with the local masons. They lived there for two years before getting a phone line or electricity.

From left: Tom Fisher, Paddy, Joan , John Craxton, Margot Fonteyn, Frederick Ashton and Ruth Page

There is pleasure – and a pleasurable sense of envy – to be had in this. It will be a rare visitor who steps out of the central London traffic to see ‘Charmed Lives in Greece’ and does not come away wishing that they too could live in a house by the sea with no phone or electricity. But there is also, perhaps inevitably, something too idyllic about it all. Political context is non-existent: there is no mention of the devastating Greek Civil War of 1946–49, for instance. On a personal level, we learn almost nothing about either Joan Leigh Fermor or Ghika’s two wives, or of what went on in their marriages, or about the sources of the money that enabled their lifestyles. The result is undeniably charming, but also superficial.

This is particularly noticeable in the catalogue. Ian Collins contributes an excellent essay on Craxton in Greece, but elsewhere critical faculties seem to have been abandoned. Thank-you letters comprise a significant primary source, and not even Leigh Fermor can be interesting when tossing out those. The focus on houses and decoration is reminiscent of World of Interiors. Given that one of the author-curators, Michael Llewellyn-Jones, is a former British ambassador to Greece, it is no surprise that the whole thing occasionally feels like an act of Anglo-Greek diplomacy (a field in which the British Museum has not always excelled).

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

Still, the book contains a wealth of archival documents and images, including some fine photographs that will be manna to Leigh Fermor’s many fans. Any exhibition that provides a chance to see Craxton’s paintings is enough to improve the mood. It’s in his Arcadian spirit that ‘Charmed Lives in Greece’ is best enjoyed.

Click this link to purchase a copy of John Craxton: A Life of Gifts 


Paddy’s Illustrator – John Craxton Telegraph Obituary

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.

John Craxton's Reaper in a Welsh Landscape

John Craxton's 'Reaper in a Welsh Landscape', 1945 Photo: BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY

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.

The rent on the flat was paid by one of the most influential patrons of the day, Peter Watson, who owned Horizon magazine. Watson’s friendship was a boon in other ways: having lived in Paris before the war, he was a source of first-hand information about the latest developments in the Continental avant-garde.

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.

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese

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