A world of private mystery: John Craxton, RA (1922-2009)

A world of private mystery: John Craxton, RA (1922-2009)
The Fitzwilliam, Cambridge (to 21 April 2014, free)

Two interesting discoveries this weekend – the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the artist John Craxton. Both were new to me and both made me feel that the trip to Cambridge was more than worthwhile and an especially welcome distraction from the never ending wind and rain.

“The Fitz”, as the museum is affectionately known, is housed in a magnificent building and could be described as a mini V&A and British Museum, with art galleries thrown in. It has an amazingly good art collection and hosts visiting exhibitions and workshops. I’ll  be keeping an eye on the events calendar as Cambridge is just hour up the road from home and it is altogether easier than slogging down to London all the time.


Clockwise from top: Reclining figure with asphodels 1 (1983-4), Still life with three sailors (1980-85), Still life with cat and child (1959), Pastoral for PW (1948), Portrait of Sonia (1948-57), Voskos 1 (1985)

This exhibition was a fresh retrospective on John Craxton – from his beginnings as a young hope of post-war British art, creating dark, meditative images of the natural world, to works of incredible vibrancy, light and colour from his later life in Greece. This is the first exhibition to explore Craxton’s whole life.

Born in 1922  into a Bohemian, musical family in London, Craxton did not have much formal education, instead he learnt by drawing, reading and listening to adult conversation.

At 19 he met Lucian Freud and the pair became inseparable, working and travelling together during the Second World War. Their friendship broke down in 1960 and they remained estranged for the rest of Craxton’s life.

Craxton was part of a modern artistic movement, including Graham Sutherland and John Piper, which would find a new way of looking at the British landscape and this is what we see in his earlier dark, brooding works. His work was also influenced by Picasso, Joan Miró and Max Ernst

On his first visit to Greece in 1946, Craxton was swept away by the light, colour, landscape, food, and people and the pictures that follow reflect this with his work  changing to become joyful and colourful. He spent time on the island of Poros and then later settled in Crete. I was reminded of my misspent youth travelling the Greek Islands (including Poros which was one of my favourites) for long island-hopping holidays of sun, sand, and simple yet delicious food washed down with far too much retsina.

Although today Caxton is appreciated as one of the great British artists of the 20th century his work is not widely known to the public largely because, after he settled in Greece, it fell out of fashion with the art world and was dismissed as “frivolous and decorative”.

This frivolity  makes his work  appealing to me, particularly the bold use of line in simplified images of people, objects  and landscape.  Mischievous goats and cats feature prominently, as do plates of food, glasses and bottles. The sailors he paints seem to be having a great time, or are perhaps sleeping off a little overindulgence?

Light is everything and Caxton uses it boldly and unsparingly. Sometimes the light seems to be coming from all directions at once. The postcards I’ve photographed (see above) don’t begin to do justice to the impact of the light and colour.

There are fans and critics of Caxton’s work. While some of the drawings on display are not very technically accomplished, others are and it is interesting to see how he developed and evolved a style that is arresting and most certainly his own.

I enjoyed the many quotes from Craxton himself that feature throughout the exhibition, including the following on drawing:

  • “I arrived in Greece knowing I couldn’t draw and I would sit down in front of a man, say, in the marketplace, surrounded by hordes of children and somehow think myself into the man, allowing his image into my personality and then drawing almost unconsciously.”
  •  “I got amazing likenesses in 20 minutes. People watching thought it was uncanny. I made myself into a machine – a camera.”
  • “You’re trying to hold a single moment in a line, but it’s not static, there’s movement between you.”

I laughed at Craxton’s invention of the word ‘procraxtonation’ which I sympathise with wholeheartedly having had a bit of trouble getting myself started with Part 3 of my drawing course after the feasts and festivities of Christmas and the new year.

Craxton’s friend David Attenborough gave an address at his memorial service in 2010 and describing Craxton he said:

“In Crete he learned what he described as a very salutary lesson for a painter – that life is more important than art. And he certainly relished life to the full… He loved parties, enjoying them in both embassies and village bars with equal gusto.”

It is this love of life that shines through in his paintings of Greece and the exhibition was a welcome antidote to a grey, wet and miserable British day. His paintings lit up my day with their vitality and triggered happy memories of time spent enjoying the simple, uncomplicated pleasures of the Greek islands.

For more pictures visit The Fitzwilliam’s website.


Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
The Art Fund www.artfund.org
Daily Telegraph



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