Author and curator Ian Collins introduces the work of John Craxton, on display at The Salisbury Museum, 30 January – 7 May 2016.
John Craxton (1922-2009) was one of the most interesting and individual British artists of the 20th century. His life story, starting with wanderings on Cranborne Chase, was as colourful as his later pictures of the light, life and landscapes of Greece.
Born in London into a large, musical and bohemian family, Craxton’s nomadic habit began early – staying lengthily with relatives and family friends and briefly at school after school until being pronounced unteachable.
From an early age Craxton lodged with an artist uncle and aunt, Cecil and Amy Waller, in an ancient cottage near Farnham, a short walk from the Pitt Rivers Museum where he educated himself in art history and archaeology while revelling in untamed Dorset.
At 14 he saw Picasso’s Guernica in Paris with the paint still wet, and at 16 he was drawing in the French capital until forced home by looming war. Rejected for military service, he drew his first masterpiece at 19 – heralding a long series of haunted paintings and drawings which were studies in entrapment. A procession of solitary figures in menaced landscapes were all emblematic portraits of the artist himself.
Mentored by Graham Sutherland, and enjoying a close friendship with Lucian Freud, Craxton won youthful fame with pictures hailed as highlights of the Neo-Romantic movement (a label the artist hated).
He had great charm and luck. In the week that the Craxton family home was blitzed, his textile designer friend EQ Nicholson was moving into Alderholt mill house, on the Dorset-Wiltshire border. Craxton moved in too, with surrounding scenery to be reflected in many of his war-time pictures.
In the first post-war summer, of 1945, John and Lucian went to the Scilly Isles as stepping stones to warmer climes. And a year later John Craxton led the partnership to Greece, where, while always travelling widely, he would be based for the rest of his life.
Pictures initially inspired by Samuel Palmer and William Blake, and then by Picasso and Miró, finally owed more and more to Cretan frescoes and Byzantine mosaics as Craxton developed a linear colour language all his own. His singular art evolved from dark to light and from disquiet to joy.
But to the end he visited Cranborne Chase – with late elegiac paintings and drawings of dead elms which seemed to come full circle with his war-time pictures of six decades earlier.
Ian Collins, John Craxton’s biographer and executor, has curated a changing, two-part exhibition charting the artist’s journey from Cranborne Chase to Crete. The exhibition opened at Dorset County Museum from 28 March to 19 September 2015, and is on display at The Salisbury Museum from 30 January – 7 May 2016.
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