JOHN CRAXTON RA (1922-2009) remains a private and somewhat enigmatic man, an original illustrator and artist who had a troubled boyhood at a succession of boarding schools including a miserable time at the age of nine at the Prebendal School at Chichester.
He was eventually sent to live with an aunt and uncle, both of them artists, at Alderholt Mill on the Hampshire/Dorset border. Some of the paintings by his uncle Cecil Waller and his portrait of his 13-year-old nephew are also shown.
Locally, Craxton began to explore Cranborne Chase, and came to know the (other) Pitt Rivers Museum at Farnham, near Minchington, with its archaeological collections, much of it now subsumed into the spectacular Wessex Gallery at the Salisbury Museum, and ethnographical artefacts.
Where the landscape encouraged him to explore the very English observations of Samuel Palmer and William Blake, the treasures assembled by General Augustus Pitt-Rivers (1827-1900) introduced him to the world of the ancient Greeks.
Both form the background to this excellent small showing of his work, which has been lovingly curated by Ian Collins, a joint Trustee of the Craxton Estate. Collins carries the torch for Craxton, and this is the second exhibition, after one in Cambridge (2013-14), which builds on his 2011 monograph.
First seen last year at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester, it is drawn both from the curator’s own collection and the Estate, as well as from public collections and other private resources.
Craxton first visited Greece in 1946. The transition that led him from the English pastoral tradition through friendships with Lucian Freud and John Piper to a style that comprehended both Picasso (aged 17, he had seen Guernica in Paris) and Miró suddenly bursts out.
The constraint of illness (undiagnosed TB meant he was judged unfit for military service) and life in the country led him to portray himself as a loner in almost all the pre-1946 pictures, often in the guise of a solitary dreamer or as a figure that is half waking and half asleep; but the experience of sea light warmed him.
Pembrokeshire, the Scilly Isles, and then Greece charged his palette with urgent intensity and inner radiance. In Crete, as he wrote to Ben Nicholson’s sister-in-law in 1947, he had found an “island where lemons grow and oranges melt in the mouth and goats snatch the last fig leaves off the small trees”.
Although the depictions of Greek sailors and men drinking ouzo in tavernas have something of the same wistful self-reflection that had characterised his Palmer-like self-referential work, there is no mistaking the sunburst in which the cigarette, the worry-beads, and the meze on the table become part of one such meditative scene (Two men in Taverna, 1953).
St Augustine had a saying, Nemo nisi per amicitiam cognoscitur: you need to be a friend of a man before you understand him; southern light allowed Craxton to make friends with real people, as the portraits of Greek sailors and local men attest; later drawings to earn money, particularly of children, are scarcely even competent, as he cannot disguise his lack of interest.
As a handsome man who was one of the artists to work through the Second World War in England, he fell into a charmed circle. Craxton’s life opened up thereafter. He had a brief affair with Margot Fonteyn in 1951, and met Joan Eyres-Monsell. Through the latter, he met her future husband Paddy Leigh Fermor. The likes of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears became his friends, and collectors of his work.
For his lover he designed the sets for the Frederick Ashton ballet of Daphnis and Chlöe in which she danced in April 1951. Shorn of its scenery, the last scene was danced in October 1984 to mark Ashton’s 80th birthday. Years before, Fonteyn’s sudden marriage to the widowed Dr Roberto Arias, a childhood sweetheart who became the Panamanian Ambassador at the Court of St James, ruptured the friendship.
The six book-jacket covers that Craxton designed for Leigh Fermor are on display, and in an immediately recognisable style that was brilliantly imitated by Ed Kluz for the posthumous publication of The Broken Road From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos (2013).
The last exhibit is a Christmas card from 2008 (author’s collection), which depicts an icon-like Madonna against a gold background; Craxton loved the churches of Crete, and was intending to produce a book on the painted churches of the island with Maria Vassilaki, who curated the Royal Academy 2009 Byzantium exhibition.
A closer look at the card shows the Virgin holding a handset; the speech bubble reads “I am with child”. So we have the Madonna of the Mobile. Craxton was profoundly grateful to Chichester Cathedral for putting him off organised religion at an early age and, as he recalled in 1998, “helping me to become a pagan”.
Yet Cretan religion, which is as much rooted in bull worship as in the icons of so many whitened churches, pervades his art. He moved to the island permanently in 1960 to live in the Venetian port of Chania, returning only after the fall of the Colonels. Thereafter, he split his time between both Dorset and Crete, bringing to both a sharp, quite as much as poetic, eye.
In the immediate aftermath of the War, he visited Knossos and Heraklio. He dismissed claims that El Greco could have been born in Fodele, as was then generally believed. That and his finding that El Greco’s house in Toledo had been wrongly espoused by an over-eager tourist board did not make for friends, but strongly argues for the artist’s acuity.
Years later (1979), in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he was shown the celebrated Cycladic figure of a seated harp player. It had been purchased in 1947 and was claimed to date to 2800-2700 BC. Craxton revealed (Sunday Times, 31 December 2000) how he had watched a local sculptor on the island of Ios, Angelos Koutsoupis, “improve” on an armless archaic piece in the winter of 1947, to make a perfect figure that was “aged” in the riverbed before finding its way to the Rogers Fund. The Met still displays the forgery. But for Craxton’s eagle eye, I, too, might have been taken in by yet another “Cycladic” figurine.
Is he any good? The answer is puzzling. Bristol City thought so in 1952, when it bought the massive Four figures in a Mountain Landscape (1950-51) that shows Cretan shepherds milking goats; but it spent more than 50 years stuffed away in a storeroom, and has only recently been brought to light and, as here, to proper attention.
He certainly bears comparison with contemporaries such as Sutherland, Nash, and Piper, as his compositions are always strong and enjoyable; but, for all his affection for the Greece of sheepfold and harbourside, his work needs more rigorous assessment. The warmth of his art brought much relief to a damp cold evening in the cathedral close, but where lies the artist’s heart?
The museums in Dorset and at Salisbury, much as Mascalls Gallery in Kent and Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, are to be congratulated for bringing together exhibitions that have such a strong local appeal. Last summer, the Salisbury Museum showed a wide-ranging selection of Turner’s paintings and drawings of the region, and the next show will address Constable’s famous views of the cathedral spire across the Close and assess the response of other artists to his insights.
Further down the line, there are plans for an exhibition to focus on the response of artists such as Piper and Sutherland to archaeological finds. Maybe Craxton will get a further look in; I would hope so.
“John Craxton ‘A Poetic Eye’: A life in art from Cranborne Chase to Crete is at Salisbury Museum, The King’s House, 65 The Close, Salisbury, Wiltshire, until 7 May. Phone 01722 332151.