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A world of private mystery: John Craxton at the Fitzwilliam Museum

December 31, 2013
8. Shepherd and Rocks, 1943, Oil on board, 31.5 x 52 cm, Britten-Pears Foundation

Shepherd and Rocks, 1943, Oil on board, 31.5 x 52 cm, Britten-Pears Foundation, © estate of John Craxton

The Fitizwilliam Museum’s current makeover means its superb Neoclassical entrance is hidden behind scaffolding and plastic sheeting. But search beyond the hoardings and a rare treat awaits. Up on the second floor is the biggest exhibition of John Craxton’s work since the 1967 Whitechapel Gallery survey.

Walking around the exhibition in a chronological fashion, the pictures go from darkness to light, following an arc from dreary, wartime Britain to the intense light and vibrancy of the Mediterranean.

Poet in Landscape, 1941, Ink and watercolour, © Artist's Estate

Poet in Landscape, 1941, Ink and watercolour, 53.5 x 75 cm, Artist’s Estate, © estate of John Craxton

Llanthony Abbey, 1942, Ink and watercolour on board, 50.5 x 63.5 cm, Tate Gallery

Llanthony Abbey, 1942, Ink and watercolour on board, 50.5 x 63.5 cm, Tate Gallery, © estate of John Craxton

During the war Craxton says he was “driven into seeing the world in a stressful way”. This tension is reflected in works such as Poet in a Landscape (1941) and Llanthony Abbey (1942), with angry, menacing trees that Craxton likens to “fists and gesticulating arms”. These wartime works  show the influence of Romanticism, particularly William Blake and Samuel Palmer. Craxton was also influenced by modern Romantics Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash. He is included alongside them in Malcolm Yorke’s  book on  Neo-Romantic art, but never accepted this label himself, preferring the term ‘Pastoral’.

And yet, even whilst sketching the osiers around Cambridge in 1943, Craxton says “the willow trees are nice and amazing but I would prefer an olive tree growing out of a Greek ruin”.

Craxton developed a long-term love of the Mediterranean, particularly Greece, which he first visited in 1946. He settled there in 1960, but was exiled during the military junta,  returning to live in Crete in 1977.

Pastoral for P.W. , 1948, Oil on canvas, 204.5 x 262.5 cm, Tate Gallery 11.

Pastoral for P.W., 1948, Oil on canvas, 204.5 x 262.5 cm, Tate Gallery, © estate of John Craxton

Craxton’s Mediterranean works show the influence of Miro and Picasso (he had first seen Guernica in Paris, aged 14). Pastoral for P.W. (1948) has a lighter palette compared to the wartime works, with a fragmented, linear quality influenced by Cubism. It also shows his obsession with picturing goats, which appear in much of his later works. The painting is dedicated to art collector Peter Watson,  who supported Craxton and friend Lucien Freud by providing them with a London studio (where they painted dead animals and from which they were eventually evicted). The goats in this image are said to be “capricious portraits” of Craxton’s friends, including Lady Norton, a founding supporter of the ICA.

Still Life with Three Sailors, 1980-85 , Tempera on canvas, 122 x 151 cm, Private Collection

Still Life with Three Sailors, 1980-85 , Tempera on canvas, 122 x 151 cm, Private Collection, © estate of John Craxton

The decorative nature of Still Life with Three Sailors (1980-85), shows Craxton’s interest in Byzantine art and his love of Mediterranean food. His friend David Attenborough says John “loved food – particularly eccentric, unusual food. One of my great pleasures in life was to be taken by John to his favourite harbour-side restaurant in Chania and be given a dish of boiled sea-creatures which even I, who am supposed to have some knowledge of the animal kingdom, found hard to identify.”

It is great to see this long-overdue comprehensive survey of Craxton’s work, but I much prefer the earlier Romantic pictures. The post-war works are – to quote painter Wyndham Lewis – “a prettily tinted cocktail that is good but does not quite kick hard enough”.

* A World of Private Mystery: John Craxton RA (1922-2009), Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 3 December 2013 – 21 April 2014

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