Tag Archives: Margot Fonteyn

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 


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

John Craxton by Ian Collins

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”.

John Craxton: Self Portrait 1943

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.”

Margot Fonteyn and John Craxton, Greece 1951.

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.

John Craxton: Pastoral to P.W.

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.

John Craxton: Two Greek Dancers, 1951.

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.

Let’s celebrate a full life, and one well lived

From left: Tom Fisher, Paddy, Joan , John Craxton, Margot Fonteyn, Frederick Ashton and Ruth Page. Photo: Costas Achillopoulos in Ian Collins’ book on the life of John Craxton

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.