John Craxton: A Life of Gifts by Ian Collins review

Martin Bentham
·6-min read
<p>Detail from Still Life with Three Sailors, John Craxton, 1980-85</p> (Yale University Press)

Detail from Still Life with Three Sailors, John Craxton, 1980-85

(Yale University Press)

For someone whose friendships spanned from Lucian Freud and the writer Paddy Leigh Fermor to Dame Margot Fonteyn and Sir David Attenborough, the artist John Craxton remains relatively little known.

Now another former friend, the art writer Ian Collins, is seeking to revive interest in Craxton’s compelling life story with a biography which takes in his upbringing in a bohemian family in London and his early artistic career in the capital, through to subsequent periods of living and painting in Greece, the country he loved most. It’s an illuminating account, dotted with wonderful vignettes depicting adventures which begin with gay teenage liaisons in London and roaming Paris at 16 and continue with ejection from the British embassy in Athens after antagonising the visiting war hero Lord Montgomery, later expulsion from Greece for suspected spying, an affair with Fonteyn and a succession of romances and dalliances with male lovers.

The genesis of this colourful existence was Craxton’s upbringing by supportive, musical parents in St John’s Wood, assisted by an inspirational art teacher at the progressive Betteshanger House school in Kent he attended, where he also became friends with the sons of two artists. His creative enthusiasm was further fired by exposure to an exotic collection of artefacts in the now defunct Pitt-Rivers Museum in Dorset during a brief move to a hated boarding school nearby, which he stayed at only a term and later repaid by riding his motorbike across its lawn.

John Craxton’s painting Two Men in a Taverna, 1953
John Craxton’s painting Two Men in a Taverna, 1953

But it was a meeting with Peter Watson, the wealthy collector and founder of the art magazine Horizon, in London that gave the most significant early impetus, providing the young artist with the patronage, financial support and contacts to get him fully underway.

The most well-known part of Craxton’s career followed with the years he spent living and working with Lucian Freud, who had tracked down his then better-known peer after being told that Craxton was someone he should meet. Collins describes how the pair swiftly became “closer to lovers than friends” as he shared together in London at Abercorn Place in St John’s Wood and then on the Greek island of Poros, both producing fine early pictures.

The two friends drifted apart after Freud’s return to London and after recounting how their relationship soured badly many years later, the book gives a reminder of some of the deeply unattractive traits of the now much-lauded artist.

Craxton’s words are used, for example, to describe how Freud dismissed women he targeted as either frigid or whores depending on how they responded to his advances, while the author portrays Freud’s vindictiveness towards his former friend, prompted by the sale of some drawings, as “a blitzkrieg” fuelled by “unwonted depths of animosity”.

Collins laments that Craxton “returned the bitter sentiment” in a way that “damaged him” too, but makes clear that this rare instance of darkness is an exception in his subject’s otherwise ebullient existence.

Indeed, it is brightness that pervades the book as Craxton, who the author describes as “a hedonist anarchist- and more comic than cynic”, draws artistic inspiration from the landscape and light of Poros, Hydra and Crete while living in turn on each island

His closest friends there included Paddy Leigh Fermor, many of whose books he decorated with now famous front cover illustrations, and the travel writer’s wife Joan.

John Craxton and the travel writer Paddy Leigh Fermor in Serifos, Greece, in 1951.Yale University Press
John Craxton and the travel writer Paddy Leigh Fermor in Serifos, Greece, in 1951.Yale University Press

Many others gravitated to him too and an almost endless series of escapades followed, including a role in saving the Venetian and Ottoman old town of Chania from developers, and an impromptu appearance at a dinner in the same town years later for the visiting 85-year-old Sir Winston Churchill at the invitation of Fonteyn, whom he first met in London while creating scenery for a Royal Opera House ballet.

Craxton also became suspected of being a British spy who had tipped off the British embassy about a 1955 gun running mission from Poros to Cyprus via Crete.

The author discounts the notion saying that the garrulous artist was “poor material for a conventional secret agent” and “in many ways despised Britain” being instead “wholly philhellene” and an “adopted Greek”. The evidence he says “is all in the pictures” which are the “passionate observations of an adopted Greek”.

But these suspicions, which as late as 2015 resulted in the vetoing of a proposal to name a street in Poros after the artist, had serious repercussions after a military coup in 1967 led to Craxton’s expulsion from the country.

Years of exile followed and the artist, whose paintings had fallen out of fashion, saw his fortunes dip until a revival in the 1980s with the support of the Mayfair gallery owner Christopher Hull.

Among those buying from one sell-out exhibition were David and Richard Attenborough, reflecting the former’s long standing admiration for Craxton’s work since being “captivated” by his drawings for a poetry book more than 40 years earlier.

Others drawn into Craxton’s orbit included the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, the owners of Chatsworth House, the former Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins and Ann Fleming, the Bond writer’s wife, as well as the bisexual prostitute Spud Murphy.

With such an array of characters playing a part of Craxton’s life it’s perhaps an understandable flaw that Collins occasionally allows the detail to overwhelm, rarely missing an opportunity to tell more when sometimes less might be better.

An odd description of asthma as a “mysterious threat to breathing” which occurs when irritants cause constriction in the airways” is one example of such superfluous information, while some biographical background on peripheral acquaintances might also have been omitted.

But the core of the book remains gripping and is given added interest by the inclusion of a fine selection of photographs, including a striking image of Fonteyn sunbathing naked on a Greek rooftop and another of Craxton’s dinner encounter with Churchill. There are also numerous magnificently vibrant depictions of the artist’s work.

Art, of course, remains central, but although Collins gives a comprehensive account of Craxton’s evolution from “darkness into light and monochrome into colour” following his move to Greece and influences ranging from Blake to Miro, Picasso and Byzantine mosaics, there’s relatively little detailed analysis of his work.

That’s in keeping with Craxton’s hostility to art criticism, which attached to him a “Neo-Romantic” label that he disliked. One critic was told by the artist that he refused to allow his “carefully orchestrated pictures play second fiddle to your art theories”.

Another memorable swipe came when he dismissed the need to explain pictures, saying that “no meal can be made more exciting by running commentary analysis of the flavours” and the book loses nothing by concentrating instead on the sheer joy of Craxton’s story.

The artist’s life, which even beyond pension age included an appointment as Britain’s consular correspondent in Chania and the drama of arrest and acquittal on charges of stealing antiquities, ended in 2009 at the age of 87 with painting continuing almost to the end.

His reputation today stands in the mid-rank of modern British artists, well below that of more renowned contemporaries such as Freud, Francis Bacon and Frank Auerbach. Collins’ entertaining portrayal won’t change that alone, but this fine and uplifting book about a man who sought every opportunity to live to the full offers readers much to enjoy.

John Craxton: A Life of Gifts by Ian Collins (Yale, £25)

Buy it here

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