John Craxton's World of Private Mystery is revealed at the Fitzwilliam Cambridge

By Richard Moss | 06 December 2013

Exhibition review: A World of Private Mystery: John Craxton RA (1922 - 2009), The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until April 21 2014

a painted portrait of a young woman with brown eyes and black hair
Portrait of Sonia (1948-57)© Private Collection
John Craxton may not be as famous as some of his peers from the post-war British art scene, but his paintings are effectively the pictures of his life and, considering how distracted he was by life, it’s a wonder any of them got painted at all.

Seventy pictures from all periods, beginning when he was a 19-year-old sharing a studio with Lucian Freud in London, right up to when he was 90-year-old living in Crete, are served up here in this first major exhibition since a Whitechapel show in 1967. They reveal an artist joyously in thrall to the colours of life. 

Craxton is perhaps best known for his earlier paintings - such as the currently vogue-ish neo-Romantic depictions of solitary figures in the British landscape - but this excellent show moves us away from these English pastorals towards a more colourful Craxton warmed by the Greek sun.

Born into a large bohemian and musical family in London in 1922 he developed an early interest in the arts and culture and, partly at the expense of a formal education, his natural talent for drawing was encouraged. At 14 he saw Picasso’s Guernica in Paris; by 19 he was studying at Goldsmiths (and traveling) with Lucian Freud - the pair of them were soon feted as the great young hopes of British art.

Freud became the eminent English figurative painter but Craxton, who for a time was considered the more talented of the two, became the Arcadian dreamer who spent much of his time off the radar in Greece. Looking at his paintings today, Craxton seems like the perfect antidote to the bleak severity of Freud.

“John was the most charming, witty, urbane and naughty man,” says the Fitzwilliam’s Keeper of Collections David Scrase, who has been assisted in the curation by Craxton’s friend and biographer Ian Collins.

“He was very entertaining, a terrible punner, a life-enhancing man and great fun. Early on you get this romantic introspection but he quickly realised life was more important than painting.”

Collins, who met Craxton at the funeral of Prunella Clough in 1999 and then "went off to the pub with him" and eventually persuaded him to consent to a beautiful monograph, describes him as being “just like the person in these pictures”.

“He was the world’s great hedonist,” he adds. "He didn’t have a puritanical fibre in him. He just lived to enjoy life, everything you can think of, he liked it.”

Despite this enviable mind-set, putting Craxton into context inevitably pitches him against his peers – like Michael Ayrton, Robert Colquhoun, Graham Sutherland and the other painters who flourished in the 1940s.

And for many his work from this time still holds the most interest. But look again at the half dozen or so pictures from this period, including the Samuel Palmer-inspired Poet in the Landscape (1941) and the Sutherland-like Cart Track (1942-3), and they seem somehow weighed down by their Britishness.

He may have been part of an English landscape revival, but Craxton, who later said "I feel like an émigré in London and squashed flat", couldn’t wait to escape. 

“Craxton is known for these early works but in reality he was trapped here doing this stuff,” says Collins. "He just couldn’t get away, they just couldn’t get out.”

An attempt to go to France in 1945 hidden in the hold of a fishing boat was scuppered when it was searched en route. The same year, a trip with Lucian Freud to the Isles of Scilly resulted in paintings including Red and Yellow Landscape (1945), which, as well as revealing a neat line in Sutherland-inspired abstraction, looks for all the world like Crete.

The trip also produced the stunning Portrait of Sonia (1948 - 57), one of the best paintings in the exhibition, although it took nine years to complete - a delay the artist put down to "procraxtination".

Earlier in 1943 Sutherland had lured him to Pembrokeshire by saying it looked like Greece. The results were very similar. Spiritually he was already in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Pastoral for P.W. (1948)
, his homage to his patron and founder of the legendary arts magazine Horizon, Peter Watson, seems representative of his frustration.  Essentially an emblematic self portrait, he casts himself as a goat herd, wandering the landscape like a Cubist Pan. Greek goats, along with cats, were to become a favourite subject matter.

His opportunity to visit Greece finally came in 1946 courtesy of the wife of the British Ambassador to Athens who he met when in Zurich for an exhibition. In a typical example of his charm and ease with everyone from grandees to peasants, she agreed to take him to the Greek capital in a borrowed bomber.

British Council exhibitions followed and the Greek love affair continued for the rest of his life.

a painted portrait of an old man with a beard
Head of an Aged Cretan. November 1948.© Private Collection, London
The Hellenic joie de vivre, together with what Scrase describes as a “fluidity of line and facility of craftsmanship, which you find in Picasso and also again with David Hockney”, resulted in some stunning paintings. Craxton’s trademark angular leaves and branches are still there – but from here in on they are suffused in a Mediterranean glow.

Paintings like Landscape with Derelict Windmill (1958) reveal how he was perfectly at ease with a palette of incredibly strong colours that evoke the purity of light and the density of colour of the Greek landscape. You can also trace the influence of Picasso and Miro. But in Greece Craxton was really his own man.

A commission for Frederick Ashton’s 1951 Festival of Britain production of Daphnis and Chloe resulted in a series of Greek inspired set designs that Scrase remembers as being “like seeing the dawn rise from a boat”.

“He understood all the shades of darkness and density,” he adds. “It was very impressive and incredibly joyous.”

Craxton eventually settled in Crete in 1960 and divided his time between London and the Greek island.

He painted in his studio, which overlooked the bay in Hania; he caroused in bars with Greek sailors who he liked to sketch and paint as they danced. He also produced some stunning portraits and large-scale, tessellated landscapes that are shot through with vibrant greens and cubist disruptions that drew on his love of Byzantine mosaics.

Sadly these developments weren’t appreciated by critics or the public, and for a time Craxton seems to have simply slipped from public consciousness.

“There was a review of his 1967 Whitechapel Gallery retrospective which said his pictures “struggled against a handicap of happiness”, says Collins. “He himself wasn’t struggling at all, but rather giving himself up for pleasure.”

But the reviews became very tepid and there were long periods when he didn’t show at all.

The pictures he produced during this period - including the famous book jackets for his friend and fellow Hellenophile, Patrick Leigh Fermor, make it hard not to agree with Collins when he says: “he was just not miserable enough - I think there was an irritation that he was having too much fun.”

Today, four years after his death, the work of John Craxton is becoming fashionable again – and not just the neo-Romantic works. Many of the paintings here are however in private collections or with the artist’s estate.

Notable pieces have been lent by his friend Sir David Attenborough, one by Tacita Dean (who was inspired to become an artist after chancing up Craxton in his studio in Crete when she was aged just 16) and a brace by the critic Brian Sewell, who reportedly said, “this is an exhibition Tate should have done”.

A growing core of admirers is already attuned to Craxton’s ebullience. This highly attractive and easy exhibition will bring even more people into the fold.

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The best art exhibitions to see in London during autumn/winter 2013

an abstract yellow landscape with sun and hills
Red and Yellow Landscape, 1945.© Private Collection, London
a painting featuring Cubist elements and a man in white herding goats
Pastoral for P.W. 1948.© Tate Gallery
a blue tinged painting of a man in an abstract landscape
Llanthony Abbey. 1942.© Artist's Estate
a colourful painting of a sailor lying in a bed of flowers
Reclining figure with asphodels I. 1983 - 4.© Private Collection, London
a tesselated painting of flowers moon, swirls and sunset
Landscape with the elements. 1973 - 5.© Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
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I'm not schooled in the subject of art (though I am a musician), but I know what I like; adventurous, quirky, real and surreal, these paintings are beautiful.
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