Porcelain and Mediterranean scenery feature in Fitzwilliam Museum's winter exhibition programme

By Sarah Jackson | 11 November 2013

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge will feature two artists whose works have long been recognised by the art world but are less known by the wider public this winter.

Painting of a man lying amongst grass and flowers with his arms above his head and his eyes closed.
John Craxton, Reclining figure with asphodels 1 (1983-4)© Private Collection, London
From the end of November, potter, author and Cambridge graduate Edmund de Waal will be taking over four galleries of the museum to explore the story of porcelain. On White – Porcelain Stories from the Fitzwilliam will explore the almost impossible translucent whiteness of a material which has fascinated both makers and collectors from the East and West for more than 1,000 years.

This intervention includes a residency by de Waal in Jingdezhen, China in 2012. Since the 11th century, Jingdezhen has been a world centre for porcelain, creating works that have been coveted for centuries for their beauty: "white as jade, mirror bright, paper thin and clear as a bell."

"Jingdezhen has always been a slightly mythical place for me, as the starting place for porcelain," says De Waal. “ I wanted to discover what it was about its porcelain that made Emperors.”

Along with material from this residency, the artist has re-curated the permanent collection of European and Chinese ceramics. This will include letters from the French Jesuit priest, Pere D’Entrecolles, who spied on the secrets of porcelain production in China during the early 1700s, and more than 40 pieces from the museum’s permanent collection.

Two major installations of de Waal’s work will form the highlights of the intervention. The first is A Thousand Hours, one of the artist’s most ambitious works comprising of 1,000 pots encased in two large walk-through vitrines. The second, Yourself, You, was specially commissioned for On White, and consists of another two free-standing vitrines which contain 36 thrown porcelain vessels in white and cream glazes and some unglazed.

"This intervention is about obsession, with porcelain and with the colour white," continues De Waal. “How do you make it? Can you ever get to the place it comes from, the source of this river of white?

“The Fitzwilliam has an extraordinary collection of Chinese porcelain. I fell in love with it as a student. I hope that by telling some of its stories visitors will begin to look again at the objects on display here.”

Meanwhile, from December, A World of Private Mystery: John Craxton RA (1922-2009) will present the first retrospective of a man considered by art aficionados to be one of the great British artists of the 20th century. Little known outside of the art establishment, this retrospective will trace his career from a young hope of post-war British art to his later vibrant works made in Crete.

Craxton found success early, winning instant acclaim at his first exhibition at the Leicester Galleries at the age of just 22. Along with his close friend Lucian Freud, they were amongst the young hopes of British art. In this early part of his career, Craxton produced desolate images of metamorphic trees, estuaries and mysterious and meditative figures (shepherds, poets and dreamers).

Despite this success, Craxton never felt fully happy in Britain and dreamed of going to Greece. He settled in Crete in 1960 but was exiled after the Greek military junta of 1967, living in various countries around the Mediterranean.

His love for this area of the world was reflected in his later works in his use of the light and colour of the Mediterranean landscape. He was also inspired by ancient Greek history and mythology as well as Byzantine mosaics.

“When I visited Greece and Crete for the first time in 1964, I realised how perfectly Craxton had caught the light and mood of that most lyrical of landscapes," says the curator of the exhibition, David Scrase.

“This retrospective of his life’s work shows, above all, Craxton’s mastery of line. But it also celebrates him as a man who loved life.”

The exhibition will also include personal photographs revealing Craxton’s many travels and friendships, including one of his closest friends, Sir David Attenborough, who will open the exhibition.

"In Crete, John learned what he described as a very salutary lesson for a painter – that life is more important than art.”

  • On White - Porcelain stories from the Fitzwilliam runs November 29 2013 - February 23 2014. A World of Private mMystery: John Craxton RA (1922-2009) runs December 3 - April 20. Follow the museum on Twitter @FitzMuseum_UK.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

White and cream porcelain cylindrical vessels.
Edmund de Waal, yourself, you (detail) (2013)© 2013 Photograph Ian Skelton

Two vitrines filled with cylindrical white and cream ceramic vessels.
Edmund de Waal, a thousand hours (detail) (2012)© 2012 Photograph Michael Harvey
Painting of two people working in a field and a goat raching for leaves on a tree under a bright sun.
John Craxton, Landscape with Derelict Windmill (1958)© Private Collection
Landscape painting in yellow and red.
John Craxton, Red and Yellow Landscape (1945)© Private Collection, London

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Leeds Art Gallery and Henry Moore Institute share Lucien Freud's Degas bronze

Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.

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