Pastoral for P.W. (1948). Picture Credit: Estate of John Craxton and Pallant House Gallery

Can’t art ever just be happy?

Whilst the British art world wallowed in misery, John Craxton led a one man rebellion for the cause of cheer

Artillery Row

It’s a question that haunts an eye-opening new exhibition celebrating — the cliché is, for once, accurate — John Craxton RA (1922-2009), the British artist and designer whose long career is now mostly associated with his sun-drenched images of Greece, a place that first seduced him long before his first visit in 1946 and remained his great enduring love.

Craxton’s life was a charmed one. Born into a large, loving, chaotic family of musicians, he was, from the start, encouraged to be a free spirit. Home was a rambling house in St John’s Wood filled with students, friends and hangers-on, some of them very well-connected. 

John Craxton, Self-portrait, 1946-47

Formal schooling was patchy — Craxton was ejected from multiple boarding schools. The only exam he ever passed was the one that, later in life, allowed him to ride his beloved BSA 125 motorbike. His spelling, dubbed “Anglo-Craxton”, remained anarchic. He was not one to play by anyone else’s rules, then or ever. 

By his early teens, Craxton’s real talents had revealed themselves. He could and did charm virtually anyone. Also, he could draw. 

In 1941, aged 19, family contacts and happy chance nudged him into the ambit of Peter Watson, patron of Horizon magazine, Maecenas of much of wartime Britain’s modernist endeavour. Craxton had failed his army medical due to undiagnosed tuberculosis. Watson engineered a sort of informal artistic apprenticeship, setting Craxton up with all sorts of useful contacts, chief amongst these Graham Sutherland, whom he joined for painting trips in Pembrokeshire. 

Watson was an encouraging patron who sent letters beginning “I am sending you a cheque because I feel that you may need it and that you really deserve it.” He also paid for Craxton’s maisonette studio, in the upper floor of which Craxton soon installed another free-spirited, teenage would-be artist, Lucian Freud. 

The current exhibition, on show at Pallant House Gallery, frames Craxton’s life in terms of an odyssey. It’s triumphantly strong in its account of where the journey started. 

For while in his later years Craxton, allergic to groups, rejected any association with the Neo-Romantics — “you’re either romantic in spirit or you aren’t” — he was also, as with all real artists, ruthless in extracting from others the lessons that he needed. His early work evokes not only Sutherland and Paul Nash, or even the unavoidable Picasso, but also William Blake and Samuel Palmer, not least in their preference for imagination over earth-bound literalism. 

On a visit to the UK in the mid 1960s he wrote the following: ‘I AM SAD. ENGLAND IS TERRIBLE. FOG. CLOUDS. I WILL DIE.’

It’s a paradox that the dislocations, anxieties and privations of 1940s London would coincide with a moment of truly remarkable British cultural achievement — yet for the youthful Craxton, despite sharing with Freud the varying charms of Soho jazz clubs and long lunches with Sir Kenneth and Lady Clark, the atmosphere could seem grim, grey, confining. “Poet in Landscape” (1941) conveys this — a monochrome study of angsty adolescent introversion, albeit executed with linear confidence and sheer delight in covering surfaces.

For others, the greyness would persist. Shutting down Horizon at the end of 1949, Cyril Connolly opined ‘It is closing time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair’. 

Craxton, though, had other plans. In 1946, a visit to Greece revealed to him the literal Arcadia for which Palmer et al had prepared him. Greece, particularly Crete, gave him what he needed: sunshine, casual sex, friendship, conviviality, all of it played out amid a rocky, goat-nibbled landscape supersaturated with myth, beauty and pleasure. 

Cover for a Time of Gifts

On a visit to the UK in the mid 1960s he wrote the following: ‘I AM SAD. ENGLAND IS TERRIBLE. FOG. CLOUDS. I WILL DIE.’ For once, he wasn’t entirely joking.

In Greece, Craxton’s habitual good luck ensured sustaining friendships, notably with the painter Niko Ghika, travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and Paddy’s wife Joan, perhaps Craxton’s most enduring patron. Many now know Craxton’s work best via the cover he designed for “A Time of Gifts”. He dined with everyone who came past Greece, from the senile Churchill to Aristotle Onassis and the cast of Zorba the Greek, a film he deplored. 

Craxton, however, also enjoyed the company of shepherds, fishermen, young conscript soldiers and, particularly, sailors, many of whom turn up in his work. Bisexual in an unproblematic, guilt-free way, he could also charm women — most spectacularly, prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, whom he met in 1951 when designing the sets and costumes for Daphnis and Chloë. As was generally the case with Craxton, long after the affair had ended, they remained firm friends. 

All of this, too, is present at Pallant House. To step from the “early” room into the first of the Greek rooms feels like emerging from fog into blinding sunlight. “Pastoral for P. W.” (1948) shows how far Greece had pushed Craxton’s understanding of colour. The linear energy is still very much present, but it’s as if Craxton had suddenly learned to work in a new dimension. 

Pastoral for P. W. (1948)

The remainder of Craxton’s odyssey charted the evolution of his distinctive visual language. Here, too, the Pallant House show is richly instructive. A new set of influences — Fayum coffin portraits, gold-ground Byzantine mosaics, Orthodox icons — literally changed Craxton’s perspective, liberating him from Cubism and oils, teaching him to create in tempera across picture-planes that sparkle and shine with near-iridescent colour, as in “Two Figures and Setting Sun” (1952-1967). 

Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-1967)

Two passing clouds occluded Craxton’s sunshine. One was the Generals’ coup of 1967, exiling him from Greece for a decade. The other, more enduring sadness stemmed from a toxic feud with his old friend Lucian Freud. The latter still matters, because to an extent, comparison between the two still seems the natural means of gauging Craxton’s importance.

Craxton’s critical reputation has had its ups and downs. It’s not just that while fashions changed — the imperial sway of American Abstract Expressionism giving way to Pop Art, Conceptual Art, “happenings” — Craxton carried on regardless. Other British artists of Craxton’s generation — Bacon, Freud — also had to contend with the much-heralded “death of painting”. 

No, what sunk Craxton, at least in the eyes of some, was happiness per se. Writing about Craxton’s 1967 Whitechapel retrospective, critic John Russell opined that Craxton’s pictures “push hard against the handicap of happiness” — happiness, apparently, being inimical to true art.

In London, Craxton’s pictures were damned as “decorative”. While Freud increasingly immersed himself in depicting what Craxton termed “curiously repellant nudes” that looked like “trophies”, and Bacon conjured up smeary nightmares of aestheticised sex and violence, Craxton was more interested in tavernas, leafy ravines, his beloved cats. 

Also, while Freud and Bacon both ruthlessly curated their own reputations — courting the London art world, editing their early works — Craxton couldn’t be bothered. “Life is more important than art” was Craxton’s mantra. (And yet — is there, in “The Butcher” (1964-68), a huge canvas featuring an eviscerated carcass, a joke at Bacon’s expense?) 

The Butcher (1964-68)

With historical distance comes, perhaps, more sympathy. The most beautiful single picture in this elegantly-arranged show is a late-ish one. “Reclining Figure with Asphodels I” (1983-84) portrays that familiar Craxton subject, a sailor, asleep on the grass, while sweetly-coloured asphodels — a flower symbolising death — spring up all around him, not least from his crotch, with a sort of gay (in every sense) ithyphallic vitality. An erotic dream? Or perhaps the most sublimated, actually quite pagan re-imagining of Easter, that greatest of Orthodox holy days? Who knows? The fact that it’s a happy painting by no means precludes it being an engaging one. 

The exhibition is co-curated by Ian Collins, whose recent biography — encyclopaedic, gossipy, perceptive — will surely remain the central source for Craxton’s life. Collins was also, for decades, Craxton’s friend. This shows. From the explanatory labels to the massive image of Craxton, dressed in leathers astride that motorbike, that greets one on the way into the show, there’s a playfulness about the whole enterprise, a kind of exultation, that seems entirely true to the legacy of this joyous, wholly individual artist. 

Cretan Cats II (2003)

John Craxton: A Modern Odyssey is at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex until 21 April 2024. 

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