Figure in Tree Lithograph by John Caxton (1944)
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.
A new exhibition at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester will chart Craxton’s journey from Cranborne to Crete, from early paintings of dark and menaced war-time landscapes to joyful scenes painted under bright Cretan skies.
“John Craxton was one of the art world’s best-kept secrets, but his reputation has surged since his death,” said exhibition curator Ian Collins.”The retrospective exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge earlier this year attracted a huge number of visitors and we are hoping for a similar reaction here.”
“This exhibition will bring together many paintings and drawings never previously exhibited,” said Jon Murden, Director of Dorset County Museum. “It covers an extraordinary range of work from his early life in rural Dorset to Greece where he lived after the Second World War.”
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 in an ancient cottage, a short walk from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Farnham. Within this Aladdin’s cave of treasures from all periods and places, Craxton 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 dark and threatened 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, and reflected the surrounding scenery 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. 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 Miro, 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.
The new exhibition at Dorset County Museum, curated by Ian Collins, John Craxton’s biographer and executor, will explore Craxton’s journey into light and colour – following his travels from Dorset to Greece. The exhibition will run from 28th March to 19th September 2015, moving to Salisbury Museum early in 2016. The Museum is open from 10.00am to 4.00pm, Monday to Saturday.