Artist and Bon Viveur | Andrew Lambirth

0
1279

John Craxton in Greece: The Unseen Works, Osborne Samuel, 23 Dering Street, London W1, 10 May – 8 June 2018

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor, British Museum, London, 8 March – 15 July 2018

This radiant early summer in London has been enlivened by two exhibitions focusing on the artist John Craxton (1922-2009): a one-person mini-retrospective at the commercial gallery Osborne Samuel, and a joint survey of him and his friends Paddy Leigh Fermor and Niko Ghika at the British Museum. The latter was organised with the A. G. Leventis Gallery, Cyprus in collaboration with the Benaki Museum in Athens (where it was previously shown) and the Craxton Estate. The exhibition was supported by the A. G. Leventis Foundation. With so much activity in the Craxton camp, it is high time for serious re-appraisal of his work – something that has been surprisingly scarce in the nine years since his death.

In that time, a number of dealers have been wooing the Craxton Estate in the hope of landing a profitable deal. The artist’s partner, Richard Riley, has given long and careful thought to which gallery to plump for, and Gordon Samuel of Osborne Samuel has been the fortunate choice. Osborne Samuel broached their relationship with Craxton with a small show of works on paper in 2011, but The Unseen Works was an exhibition of a very different order of importance. Accompanied by a substantial catalogue, and with prices chasing up to £350,000, the argument was being publicly made for Craxton as a prime contender to the upper echelons of mid-century Modern British Art. But does he really warrant such boosting?

I have loved Craxton’s work since I first saw it in Christopher Hull’s gallery in the Fulham Road in the early 1980s. I got to know Craxton himself some years later when I was working with Nick Tite at the Royal Academy Magazine, and we used to take him out to dinner for the pleasure of his conversation. John was a redoubtable raconteur, and seemed to know or have known everyone. He was witty and informed, full of enthusiasm for whatever was under discussion, and always bringing new light to old subjects, whether William Blake (he found a painting by Blake in a Charing Cross bookshop and cannily bought it, later selling it to the Tate), or the woefully underrated Hercules Seghers, who influenced Rembrandt.

John was always finding things in junk shops and at auctions; the huge bronze chandelier by Diego Giacometti that used to hang in the Craxton Studios in Hampstead being a case in point. (The Craxton Studios had been the family house, with a big practice room at the back where the pianist Harold Craxton, John’s father, and the oboist Janet Craxton, his sister, performed and gave lessons. For decades now it has been a rehearsal studio for BBC musicians.) John kept a flat in the Craxton Studios for when he wanted to be in London, but much of his life (until his very last years) was spent in Crete. There he had an old Venetian house in Xania, with a magnificent view over the harbour from the studio terrace. In fact, he was so much an absentee in England that many art lovers thought he was dead, rather than self-exiled. Christopher Hull did much to revive his reputation, but John did not capitalise on this renewed popularity by becoming once again a presence on the London scene. He enjoyed his life in Greece too much: his friends, the food and wine, the sailors and the dancing. And there is the central issue of his life – the fact that John Craxton enjoyed living more than he did painting, and his art inevitably suffered because of this proclivity.

I don’t mean to suggest that he ever stopped being an artist: he remained that to his fingertips his whole life. No, but he was happy to dissipate much time on the good things of our earthly existence. This didn’t matter when he was younger, with abundant energy. But as he grew older his preference for wining and dining and good conversation tended to rob his work of its earlier intensity. The drawings were often still searching (though a reliance on favourite motifs was evident), but the paintings became somewhat formulaic, except when the artist’s passions were properly engaged, such as in the witty 2003 painting Cretan Cats.

Even in his early work, the immediacy of response was often lost somewhere between the initial drawing (in graphite, ink or watercolour, or combinations thereof), and the larger painting made from the first studies. Yet Craxton continued with this method of working until his death – making drawings from observation or imagination, and then making paintings from the drawings – although he became increasingly blocked and unable to finish his large and intricate easel paintings. Pleasure and spontaneity seemed to be reserved for the drawings, and the last paintings (made in the dry and ungenerous medium of acrylic tempera) seem fettered by their own prolixity. Two vast compositions, each a variant of the cat, bird and tree theme, occupied him for the last 20 years of his life, with a few diversions into equally undistinguished images of the Bosnian War.

So, if the most spontaneous and vivid of his works tend to be done on paper (and amongst these I number the lithographs and line drawings for The Poet’s Eye, that excellent Geoffrey Grigson anthology produced in 1944), this does not mean that he was a forced and unnatural painter. His best work in the medium, such as the Miro-inflected Hotel by the Sea (1946) and Pastoral for PW (1948), the magisterial Landscape, Malevizi, Crete (1952), and Dark Landscape: Hydra (1960-1), demonstrate his very considerable powers as a painter and pictorial designer. The chief strengths of his work as a draughtsman and painter readily emerged from the recent Osborne Samuel exhibition.

In Blue Still-life of 1948, for example, done in conte and white pastel on blue paper, there is a charming graphic fluency and strength of design which seems to anticipate the inspired linearity of David Hockney. (This superficial similarity to the dancing line of the Bradford Bombshell is to be noted elsewhere in Craxton’s work: as, for instance in some of his portrait drawings, such as the 1960 charcoal and chalk study of Don Bachardy. Intriguingly, there are also echoes of Lucian Freud’s early style – hardly surprising when you consider that Freud’s understanding of line and form evolved in tandem with Craxton’s, so close were they before their spectacular falling-out later.) The same compositional fluency is evident in the main painting in this show: Three Figures, Poros (1950), a large canvas with all the potent frontality of a frieze, and a simplicity of statement which borders on the schematic. There may not be much subtlety in, or differentiation between, the wide-eyed stares of all three figures, but the layout and disposition of the various elements (human, organic and man-made) creates a sonorous and stirring rhythm across the canvas.

Craxton relies much upon outline and pattern, but also makes dexterous use of a variety of textures in stippled marks and full-brush impasto. His characteristic shorthand for mimosa-like vegetation and blossom in the central background area, scimitars of rhythmic dots and dashes airily deployed, is as effective as the sprung tension of the interlacing branches. The underlying geometry of the image is softened everywhere with curves, and wit is never far away. Notice the way the leaves of the tree on the left also make a curlicued pattern suggesting chest hair on the young man who stands behind them. There is a feeling of Picasso here and a post-Cubist rendering of space, but it is mixed with something much older: the archaic beauty of ancient Greek art, and the mannerist distortions of Byzantine mosaics. Craxton makes of his various inspirations a new mix and interpretation, an idiom very much his own.

This is still to be seen in Couple by the Sea (Panorama Revisited), from slightly later in the decade, but the patterns are more pronounced and threaten to outweigh the graceful subtlety so evident in Three Figures, Poros. Revealingly, this later painting was for many years a bathroom decoration in the Craxton Studios. By contrast I enjoyed the structural spareness of the black and white chalk drawing from 1946, Spetses Landscape. Goats too, like cats, were a favourite Craxton motif and frequently call forth love as well as humour. Goat Eating Foliage, 1947, in conte crayon on paper, is a particularly fine example. But not all the drawings are by any means so inspired, and I have to confess to a surfeit of tavern musicians and dancing sailors in Osborne Samuel’s back rooms. Motifs can become idées fixes before one realizes. Apparently, one young Englishman meeting Craxton for the first time was greeted at the door with ‘Mmm, you’d look good in a sailor suit’. There is nothing more stultifying than self-parody.

But the best of Craxton’s work retains its persuasive charge and imaginative presence. It deserves to be properly shown in a carefully selected museum retrospective – one which dwells equally on the diversity and accomplishment of the drawings as on the paintings. This is the only way effectively to re-establish his artistic credibility: to mount an exhibition of comparable quality to his 1967 retrospective at the Whitechapel selected by Bryan Robertson. Smaller exhibitions, which seem to have been activated by the misapprehension that everything Craxton did is of equal quality, such as have been taking place around the country (Cambridge, Salisbury), though no doubt well-intentioned will only confirm him in the role of petit-maître. He is better than that, and the art-loving public deserves the chance to be convinced of his real stature.

Craxton’s life in Greece is successfully evoked by the BM’s exhibition Charmed Lives. Although there are plenty of paintings and drawings in this show, it is more of an investigation into the influence of place than an art exhibition. The long association between the British and the Greek is further exemplified in a tripartite friendship between Craxton, the Greek painter Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika and the great travel writer Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor. All three made homes in Greece, and their lives are documented through photographs, possessions and letters, as well as their art. Meeting at the end of the Second World War, they remained friends for life, a living embodiment of Anglo-Greek artistic and literary collaboration. Perhaps the best-known instance of this is the excellent series of dust wrappers Craxton designed for Leigh Fermor’s books: my personal favourite being the all-seeing eye over the landscape on the cover of Mani: Travels in the Southern Pelopennese (1958).

Ghika’s work is little-known in the UK (although there was a major show at the Whitechapel in 1968) so that it has been difficult to gauge any stylistic influence he may have had over Craxton. No firm conclusions may be drawn from the display at the BM, given the diverse nature of the enterprise, but certainly the artistic relationship between the two men was stimulating to both. Many objects were on loan from the Benaki Museum, to which Ghika bequeathed his house and works. His ancestral house was on the island of Hydra, and the three friends often met there in the early days – both Craxton and Ghika painting the landscape. When the house burnt down, Ghika and his wife moved to Corfu and renovated an old farm and olive press. Meanwhile Leigh Fermor, much honoured by a grateful Greek government (he had famously put into practice his pro-Greek enthusiasm by helping to organise the Cretan resistance to the Nazis), built his own house at Kardamyli in southern Greece. Craxton of course lived mostly in Xania. The exhibition is organised around these four places and projects a compelling sense of lived experience.

Craxton’s own life was full of colour and incident and a degree of sexual fluidity – a characteristic he shared with several other writers and artists of this period. (I am thinking particularly of Prunella Clough and Bryan Robertson.) Although predominantly homosexual, Craxton fell in love with Margot Fonteyn (when designing Daphnis and Chloe for Frederick Ashton in which she starred) and told me many years later that he would have married her, but both were equally penniless and Fonteyn wanted financial security. There are some revealing photographs of them together in 1951, looking happy in each other’s company. Apparently Craxton also enjoyed a sexual liaison with EQ Nicholson, the painter and textile designer married to Kit Nicholson, the architect younger brother of Ben. John liked women and got on well with them. He was especially fond of Joan Leigh Fermor, Paddy’s wife.

He also loved puns, good or bad, a language he dubbed Anglo-Craxton when the latest sally was greeted with a groan of remonstration. He even referred to his own late-life painter’s block as ‘procraxtonation’, a fitting neologism if ever there was one. He admitted to a deep streak of levity in his nature (he said he was ‘friv-o-lious’), bearing out Auden’s contention that the occupational disease of poets (also painters) was frivolity. But that doesn’t mean it all came pat – Craxton worked endlessly on his wit(s). Remember GK Chesterton’s observation: ‘It is easy to be solemn, it is so hard to be frivolous’. There was often a touch of the sublime about Craxton’s humour – if sublimation be the exaltation of the ridiculous. Classical construction was something that Craxton knew plenty about, but consistently refused to adopt, preferring a more contentious variant. Would that a degree of classical restraint had been applied to the design of the fat catalogue accompanying the Charmed Lives in Greece show. Although packed with information, it has been laid out like an overstuffed photograph album and is similarly confusing to the uninitiated. Altogether too anecdotal, but that seems the way of art history these days.

In newspapers and magazines, it has become the norm to treat art as news, rather than as cultural investigation worthy of contemplation and criticism. Arts editors prefer the celebrity angle: money and flamboyance garner the column inches, ideally accompanied by an eccentric photograph, with no space left for an informed discussion of aesthetic merit. Art critics are turned into journalists (or vice versa), expected to write their articles while walking round an exhibition, with no time for reflection or deeper thought than the instant reaction. Only the other day I was asked by an editor to make my review of a book positive – the magazine in question didn’t publish negative criticism. This is the age of the regurgitated press release, the blanket puff and perpetual flattery. Objective criticism is discouraged, for art has become inextricably bound up with status and wealth, and artists and dealers have powerful friends (newspaper owners, for instance) who can quash the merest hint of negativity.

The results of the summer auctions emphasise the upward trend of Craxton’s prices. In June, a gouache of a Greek fisher boy from 1956 made £65,000, as against an estimate of £15-25,000 at Christie’s. Sotheby’s offered a Craxton tempera on board of a workman (c1960) at an estimate of £6-8,000; it reached £13,750. Meanwhile at Bonhams, an oil on canvas of a musician (also c1960) made £50,000 (the top end of the estimate). None of these works was of outstanding quality, but it is significant that all three were of figures. This tendency is strongly reminiscent of what has happened to Keith Vaughan’s prices: his growing fan club have steadily pushed up the value of his paintings, but again it is the figure pictures which attract most interest, not the landscapes. Although Vaughan was, at his best, a brilliant and inventive painter of the male nude, he was also an extremely accomplished landscape artist. Actually, he painted nearly as many landscapes as figures but the landscapes are played down in museum exhibitions and surveys of his work, and the nudes are pushed to the front. Some commentators attribute this development to the power of the so-called ‘Pink Pound’ – a wealthy generation of homosexual art collectors with plenty of disposable income – but it can also be accounted for by the basic preference people have for human content in art, rather than still-life or nature. (This is, in another way, reflected in our habit of seeing faces in abstract patterns.)

Craxton is one of the Modern British and contemporary artists to be featured in the Jerwood Collection, which is this year celebrating a quarter century of acquisitions. A selection of 25 works was shown at Sotheby’s to coincide with the summer fine art auctions, and proved to be both popular and arresting. The quality and range of the work was generally impressive, from an early Sickert painting of an Afghan gentleman (c1895), to a magnificent and moving portrait by Maggi Hambling of Frances Rose, an elderly neighbour of the artist (1973), via an unusual Shropshire landscape by Ivon Hitchens (c1931). There were powerful works by Craigie Aitchison, Edward Burra and Euan Uglow, Cedric Morris and Stanley Spencer, and a beautiful still-life-cum-landscape by Frank Brangwyn. The Craxton chosen to represent the Jerwood holding of his work is another figure painting, The Dancer (1951), selected in preference to the other Craxtons in the Collection: the rather fine Still-life with Decanter I (1942), and Pipe Player (1960).

Alan Grieve, chairman of the Jerwood Foundation, made his first purchase for the Collection at Sotheby’s in 1993 – it was the Brangwyn – and since then has built up numbers to approaching 300. His daughter, Lara Wardle, now director of the Collection, is managing it with enthusiasm and flair. The impressive Jerwood Gallery in Hastings mounts regular exhibitions of the Collection in between an ambitious programme of shows devoted to Modern British and contemporary art. The collection continues to grow. A large Rose Wylie (a past winner of the Jerwood Painting Prize) was purchased in 2012, and the very recent acquisition of a painting by Wylie’s late husband, Roy Oxlade (1929-2014), bought from the Alison Jacques Gallery in London this spring, allows the opportunity to compare and contrast the work of these two artists. Wylie has rather eclipsed her husband’s reputation these days, but even the most cursory examination of his Jerwood painting Profile and Brushes reveals that he provided much of the inspiration for her work, and that actually he did it rather better.

The Jerwood is one of those private collections (like the Ingram Collection) that is regularly on public view, and its domestic scale was inspired by Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and the Pier Art Centre in Stromness, Orkney. We need more of this kind of collecting – as a counterweight to the official line of establishment art institutions, which tend to collect much more narrowly the fashions of the day. The richness and variety of modern art in Britain is no longer reflected by the Tate Gallery: we need more broad-minded collections such as the Jerwood and Pallant House Gallery to remind us (even in a small way) of the glories of our living tradition.

John Craxton, Three dancers, Poros, 1953-1954. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Lincoln College, Oxford
Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor with Niko and Barbara Ghika and builders during the construction of the terrace in Kardamyli, 1967. Photo: Joan Leigh Fermor. National Library of Scotland, Joan Leigh Fermor Photographic Collection

 

 

John Craxton painting in Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo: Suschitzky © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky © Estate of Joan Leigh Fermor

 

Order the full August/September 2018 issue