Osborne Samuel Gallery held its first major exhibition of Craxton’s work in May-June 2018 titled ‘John Craxton in Greece – The Unseen Works’ that coincided with the British Museum’s exhibition of Charmed Lives in Greece : GHIKA , CRAXTON , LEIGH FERMOR. Both exhibitions were hugely well received and well attended. Craxton first went to Greece in 1946 with his then great friend Lucian Freud; Freud returned after six months and Craxton made his life in Greece, settling in Crete apart from a forced period back in Britain when the Greek military came to power.
Our exhibition in the Summer of 2021 will focus on the work that Craxton produced before 1946, a period of arcadian pastoral landscapes of dreamers and poets, befriended by Graham Sutherland whom he accompanied on trips to Pembrokeshire in Wales and financially supported by the aesthete and great benefactor of young artists, Peter Watson through whom he met other artists linked to the Neo-Romantic movement. A new biography by Ian Collins published by Yale University Press will be launched at the exhibition.
Dancer in a Landscape, 1943
Pencil, charcoal and conté crayon and gouache on paper
45.9 x 58.65 cm.
Christopher Hull Gallery
Private collection, UK 1992
Private Collection, UK
Ian Collins, John Craxton, Lund Humphries, Farnham, 2011, p.49, illustrated pl.43
Dancer in a Landscape belongs to a series of images, painted or drawn by Craxton in the early 1940s, depicting solitary figures. He later described them as projections of himself, ‘derived from Blake and Palmer. They were my means of escape and a sort of self protection. A shepherd is a lone figure, and so is a poet.’ ₁
Poet in a Landscape and Dreamer in Landscape (now in the Tate collection) are dense pen and ink drawings, reproduced in Horizon in March 1942. In each, a seated figure appears oblivious of the encroaching vegetation, gnarled trunks and roots. Craxton’s lithographs for The Poet’s Eye (1944) likewise depict tin-helmeted figures, seated, lost in reverie amid moonlit landscapes, or half-concealed within trees.
By contrast, Dancer in a Landscape is lighter in mood. In the summer of 1943 Craxton travelled with Peter Watson and Graham Sutherland to St David’s Head in Pembrokeshire, where he sketched alongside Sutherland. As he recalled,
There were cloudless days and the land was reduced to basic elements of rocks, fig trees, gorse, the nearness of sea on all sides, a brilliant clear light. Everything was stripped away – all the verbiage, that is – to the essential sources of existence. ₂
This simplification is apparent in the clarity and lightness of Dancer in a Landscape. There is a joyous sense of movement in the depiction of the river, tussocks of grass, and soft shading of the figure, as well as the delicately feathered tree and spidery clouds. Throughout the composition, Craxton seems to delight in the possibilities of mark-making, lightening with chalk and adding touches of green and sepia
₁ John Craxton, in ‘John Craxton: Paintings and Drawings 1941–1966’, exhibition catalogue (Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1967), p. 6.
₂ Craxton, ibid.
Shepherd in a Landscape, c.1942
Gouache and ink on paper
37.7 x 57.6 cm.
When the Second World War was building, in the spring and summer of 1939, John Craxton was having a whale of a time. He was 16, dropping in on life-drawing classes and enjoying the freedom of Paris. Forced home to London by a parental clamour, he was then trapped on a besieged island for the next six and a half years. In such confinement his art exploded.
Having left school as soon as he could, and with not a single qualification, he went his own way as an artist – accepting even art tuition very sparingly. He learned by looking – haunting museums and galleries – and by the company he kept. The patronage of Horizon magazine founder Peter Watson led him to the influences of Samuel Palmer and William Blake, to mentors Graham Sutherland and John Piper and to his brother in art, Lucian Freud. He was fighting against convention and illness – escaping military service due to undiagnosed tuberculosis that left him painfully thin and often struggling for breath. But through all this pressure, he worked and partied on.
John Craxton’s war-time art emerged in melancholic symbols hailed as highlights of Neo-Romantic Art (a label he hated): lonely cottages vulnerable to bombs, torn-out tree roots stranded in estuaries and, most especially, solitary figures in menaced landscapes. Drawn from life, this highly idiosyncratic art was essentially shaped in a singular imagination as a social animal pictured himself in every guise of isolation.
And so he drew and painted shepherds, sailors, dreamers, poets and dancers, each one in some kind of internal exile – and all of them emblematic images of himself. They are escaping, not into the bucolic paradise of Palmer and Blake, but into the refuge of their own heads. Based on backdrops in Dorset, Pembrokeshire and finally the Isles of Scilly, they are dreaming of further physical flight. They are also models of resilience.
By the age of 20 John Craxton had developed a masterly economy which he was learning from Picasso and Miro, in a burgeoning linear art with fastidious use of colour (expensive and in short supply). He worked predominantly on paper because canvas could not always be afforded – though old pictures bought in batches at auction were sometimes overpainted. This shepherd in landscape, wrought in pared-back blue and black, and with the bare homestead to which the figure seems disconnected as his gaze fixes on an invisible horizon, is a gem of Craxton’s yearning youthful art. He will escape as quickly as he can – and the Mediterranean is already in mind.