John Craxton: A Life of Gifts by Ian Collins, and John Craxton: Drawn From Darkness, Paintings and Drawings 1940-1946 (exhibition catalogue)
John Craxton: A Life of Gifts, Ian Collins (Yale University Press reprint, 2021) John Craxton: Drawn From Darkness, Paintings and Drawings 1940-1946 (Osborne Samuel Gallery, 2021)
An enduring image of the twentieth-century artist is seemingly integral to the fabric of our culture: an outsider, transcending society’s norms and able to use art to reveal eternal truths that the rest of us cannot see. Such artists are viewed as a type of shaman, working magic to not only satisfy their own creative instincts but also to perform a cathartic role in exposing our own cultural, social, and political realities. This trope is extremely common but also unfair and inaccurate, since the myth that it perpetuates devalues genuine artistic achievement by giving the artist a role that she or he may never have sought or desired. While it persists, it makes writing the biography of a near-contemporary artist fraught with difficulty. How does the biographer balance what he discovers in the detritus of a human life with the elevated revelations supposedly present in their art?
John Craxton fits the stereotype outlined above perfectly, which is part of the problem with Ian Collins’ John Craxton: A Life of Gifts. The early chapters emphasise Craxton’s ‘bohemian’ credentials: the creative but unconventional family; his chaotic career at the several schools that he attended and lack of any formal qualifications; his first artistic experiments and some fairly reckless behaviour during the war years in London; and his relationship with the young Lucian Freud, including some bizarre activities that took place in their shared studio. There is no doubting the authenticity of the story’s detail, but one does question whether the author has tried a little too hard to shape Craxton into the archetype of the outsider artist. Furthermore, the relentless succession of well-known names with whom Craxton had some kind of interaction does eventually become a little tedious and threaten to overwhelm the narrative. However, some moments are truly significant and help us to get some sense of Craxton’s character and personality, as shown by the following example.
In late 1941 a letter arrived for Craxton ordering him to report for a medical examination to establish whether he was fit to fight. Collins describes how Craxton waited for some hours to be examined by the doctors. While waiting he wrote four stream-of-consciousness poems in the end papers of the Blake poetry volume that he had taken with him. They expressed the anxiety and desperation that he clearly felt at what was to come. At one point, as he was waiting to be seen, he wrote,
Waiting it seems for nothing murmuring voices deathly padded movements Am I alive or is This death a dream
An unfinished line marks the point at which Craxton was called back to hear his fate, which he did not understand until it was put into plain English: “You’d be as much use to the war effort as a three legged horse.” His exemption was granted on account of supposed pleurisy, but this was probably a misdiagnosis, early onset of tuberculosis being the likelier cause.
The Osborne Samuel Gallery volume John Craxton, Drawn From Darkness: Paintings and Drawings 1940-1946 is the catalogue to an exhibition held there between May and June 2021, and it is a worthy companion to the Collins biography, for it beautifully illustrates the work that Craxton produced in what was arguably his most productive and successful period. In October 1947 Freud and Craxton shared an exhibition at the London Gallery in Mayfair, at which both artists sold all the works that they displayed but, according to Collins, Craxton made the greatest profit. The two artists had shared a house on the Greek island of Poros for a short time, and their work at the time displayed similarities. Each produced portraits of the other, with Freud’s Portrait of a Man (1946) a particularly fine image of Craxton, then sporting a Greek-style moustache (apparently, Collins claims, in an effort to assert his masculinity). Craxton responded with a beautiful pencil drawing of his friend, a masterful exercise in restraint and the power of the single line.
In their 1947 exhibition Freud showed Girl with a Kitten (1946), an early portrait of his wife-to-be Kitty Garmen and now regarded as one of his finest works. Craxton had his own masterpiece on display, Hotel by the Sea (1946). The many fine drawings and paintings contained in the Osborne Samuel Gallery catalogue attest to Craxton’s skill and ability, but one particular work, Dancer in a Landscape (1943), stands out for its remarkable maturity and sensitivity. This was one of a group of drawings that he made in the early 1940s, Poet in a Landscape (1941) and Dreamer in a Landscape (1942) being others in the series. Craxton later said of these works, “They were my means of escape, and a form of protection. A shepherd is a lone figure, and so is a poet.”
The two earlier works were published in the magazine Horizon in March 1942, for which Craxton was paid the princely sum of ten pounds. They each portray a solitary figure within a dreamlike environment, and while it is easy to interpret them as self-portraits of the inner man, it is worth considering the context in which they were produced. The war was at its height, the Blitz had devastated London, and the future was uncertain for everyone. Dancer is lighter in tone than the others in the series, with a thoughtful figure resting in an untroubled and well-ordered landscape. The fluidity of line harmonises the picture and allows the subtle tones to shine through. The solitary protagonist deep in contemplation, in a place of safety, comfort and relative ease, seems to encapsulate the hopes and wishes of most people in that tumultuous era of danger and self-sacrifice. At times today we all still wish to be that figure. The picture is a remarkable achievement, one in which Craxton has combined the modernity of a constructed landscape of linear forms with the ancient image of the lonely wise man, the seeker after eternal truth.
The collection of drawings in the exhibition catalogue are all from this period, and are worthy of close examination. Besides the series already mentioned, there are several other outstanding works. Early on Craxton clearly shows the influence of Samual Palmer but later, as the war progresses with the desolation of the real world, the bombed-out streets and death of innocents, his work becomes more internalised, with obvious references to Surrealism and Miró in particular. A 1943 picture, Imaginary Flowers in a Landscape, is an unsettling and disturbing play upon a common theme. Distorted heads of sunflowers are intertwined on abnormally thick stems, rising like gorgon heads out of a blackened rock landscape. This is an empty world, where nothing else grows and no other forms of life can be discerned. Craxton has turned the comfortable romantic motif of natural flowers in a bucolic landscape into a nightmare vision of hostility. It is a fine example of what he was capable of producing at this relatively young age.
Collins’ biography continues to detail the ephemera of Craxton’s fairly shambolic life. There were adventures in Greece, Turkey, Spain, and Crete, and recurring bouts of respiratory illness, which prompted the desire to move permanently to a warmer climate. In late 1947 he travelled to Crete, where he was to spend much of the rest of his life. The island was both a revelation and a refuge, and the inspiration for much of his later art.
After the war Craxton’s life followed the same chaotic course. He was always short of money and travelled extensively, but the spirit of Greece, and more particularly Crete, would now be present in all his work. He had successful exhibitions; his work was seen alongside Freud and Bacon, and his name was becoming known. In January 1951 his father received a letter from Frederick Ashton, who was preparing a new ballet for the Royal Opera House. The letter stated that his son’s name had come up in discussions while Ashton was in New York, and that the ROH would like to discuss the possibility of a commission, but would understand if he was unable to return to England in time. Craxton was back in Crete, working on a picture for the Festival of Britain —a painting which now ranks amongst his finest creations, Four Figures in a Mountain Landscape (1950-51). His father contacted him urgently and Craxton returned to England to take up the challenge of designing not only the set, but also the costumes for the new Ashton ballet Daphnis and Chloe, to feature Margot Fonteyn. The show was due to open in just twelve weeks.
The work proved challenging but he bonded quickly with Ashton and Fonteyn, whose company he enjoyed, and together they produced what Ashton would later recall as one of his finest achievements. Craxton had never worked on such a scale before, using huge brushes to cover eighteen metre lengths of canvas with the light of the Aegean. The scenery fitted the ballet perfectly, as did Craxton’s costumes of sailor trousers for the male corps de ballet and a wistful, ethereal dress for Fonteyn (although one critic carped that it made her look as if she “dances most of the time in her undies”), with more modern skirts for the supporting female dancers. The ballet did not convince the critics but in time it became a standard classic, and Fonteyn danced in it for a further ten years. Craxton had a brief liaison with the dancer when they toured the Greek islands as part of a sailing party together with Ashton, the choreographer Ruth Page, and her husband Tom Fisher. The affair did not last long, but Fonteyn remained one of the loves of his life. However, as Collins explains (again in some detail), Craxton had relationships with both men and women, and most of these were fairly transitory.
Over the coming years Craxton moved regularly between London, Paris, and Crete. Despite his consistently impecunious circumstances, through a mixture of good luck and the assistance of friends he was able to continue his restless existence, although occasionally tragedy struck. In May 1956 Craxton learnt that his longtime friend and sponsor during the 1940s, Peter Watson, had drowned in his bath. Watson had been the model for the beautiful 1941 drawing Poet in a Landscape, and in tribute to his friend Craxton produced another masterpiece, Elegiac Figure (in Memory of Peter Watson), 1957-59.
A young male figure is seated sideways on a high-backed chair, his head in one hand, deep in what appears to be melancholic thought. In contrast to the earlier drawing, which depicted Watson as the poet seemingly alert to the world around him and able to respond positively to it, the Elegiac Figure is introspective. The surrounding space gives no indication of location: this is a lonely man seemingly out of contact with the rest of the world. It is a haunting image of isolation and despair, themes which would become a constant of Craxton’s later work.
From the mid 1950s Craxton lived mostly in Crete, with frequent trips back to London. However, because he absented himself for such long periods from the capital’s art world, his star began to fade. It would not be until 1980 that he would again have a successful London exhibition, and although he continued to work, there were times when he stopped painting altogether. It is perhaps at this point that the Collins biography begins to reveal the downside of Craxton’s lifestyle. The house where he stayed on Crete, which belonged to Nico Ghika, was burnt down and then looted by locals. There were suicides and deaths from alcoholism amongst his friends and those who shared his life on Crete. One story that Collins relates seems to epitomise Craxton’s trials. In February 1959 Adrian Allison, an artistic neighbour of his in London, died and left his artistic partner Molly Mitchell-Smith with a doubtful future. Craxton learnt that Allison’s studio was to be sold and warned Mitchell-Smith. She persuaded him to sell his own studio to her and then served him with an eviction notice, threatening to reveal the homosexual activities which had taken place there if he didn’t leave immediately. It was the final straw for Craxton in this country: he left to live permanently in Crete.
The biography catalogues the intrigues and machinations of those around Craxton who sought a different lifestyle, with varying degrees of success. (Leonard Cohen gets a mention as he lived on Crete with Marianne Ihlen, who inspired one of his best-known songs.) But, above all this trivia, Craxton’s art remains fascinating. Perhaps this is the great frustration of the book. While the author has deemed it necessary to record the minute details of an unusual and exciting life that necessarily impacted on the art that Craxton produced, ultimately it is the art that remains after all the extraordinary —but also the ordinary— characters have long faded from view.
In a fitting tribute, the last chapter begins, not with more details of Craxton’s lifestyle, but with a painting that occupied his final years. Cat, Tree and Bird (The Blue Tree), 1989-94, is an explosion of colour that references ancient mosaics and evokes Mediterranean light. It is a stunning farewell, filled with the exuberance of a life lived without compromise or apology.
Both books are to be commended, but for different reasons. Insofar as any account of a life can begin to explain the work of a great artist, the Collins book is a fine effort which suffers through the very nature of its subject. One can understand why the author felt the need to delve into the intricate detail of Craxton’s life, but the biography does become somewhat repetitive at times. The Osborne Samuel Gallery catalogue is a worthy accompaniment to Collins, since it shows the artist’s work at a critical period of his life and demonstrates quite clearly that he was gifted with exceptional ability and talent. The ideal work on Craxton would combine elements of the two books, a monograph which concentrates more on the art than the life, containing his complete artistic output alongside the relevant biographical information.
However, both these offerings make clear that Craxton should be celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most important artists, and his work appreciated and enjoyed for its quality and imaginative force.--Paul Flux