Issue Number: 94
Charmed life: John Craxton RA
John Craxton RA takes Sarah Greenberg back in time over oysters at Bentley’s.
John Craxton RA at Bentley's Photograph Julian Anderson.
John Craxton is a man who loves the classics. When I ask him where he’d like to meet for lunch near the Academy, he replies without hesitation: ‘Bentley’s seafood restaurant for oysters, Dover sole and a crisp white Burgundy.’ A platonically perfect meal, if ever there was one. In the event, when we meet at the oyster bar, appropriately located in Swallow Street, he opts for a platter of natives and a pint of Guinness. I choose the same (minus the Guinness) and the plump oysters, fish soup and baskets of home-made soda bread, and his non-stop stories keep us busy for hours.
This bustling eatery, with its snug bar and leather banquettes, has been a haunt of Craxton’s for decades and he is pleased its recent refurbishment hasn’t dulled its character. ‘It’s one of the last old fashioned fish restaurants,’ says the 85-year-old painter. ‘Bacon, Freud and I used to meet for lunch at Wheeler’s – now it’s gone, this place reminds me of it. I adore oysters; you’re practically in the sea when you eat them.’
The sea infuses Craxton’s life and art. He lives most of the year in his Venetian harbour-side house in the Cretan town of Hania, only returning for brief spells to his Hampstead base in London. ‘The light in Greece is wonderful versus the grey duvet that blankets London,’ he says. ‘In Crete one has the luxury of excluding light. There is so much of it coming in that I can just use the exact amount I need.’
Craxton’s work abounds with still lifes of fish, cats, portraits of sailors and fishermen, as well as bucolic Greek landscapes, populated with shepherds and goats running amok among the flowers. In 2005, his paintings came to life, when his stage sets and costume designs for the 1951 ballet Daphnis and Chloe were revived at the Royal Ballet. ‘Frederick Ashton wanted a painter who knew Greece. He hadn’t been there but he wanted to make the first Mediterranean ballet.’ Craxton created a vibrant but minimal set, with dancers wearing modern clothes in an earthy palette of olive, yellow, orange and blue – a far cry from tutus.
Ever since he was a seven-year-old choirboy at Chichester Cathedral, Craxton knew he wanted to become a painter. ‘Two bas-reliefs in the cathedral were important in my life. They were Saxon/Norman. I used to see them every day and I realised that art was not copying nature but recreating it. It was the road to Damascus for me. I saw then how vital the imagination was.’
His bohemian parents – both musicians – nurtured their son’s dream. ‘They softened the hard edges,’ he says. When he was turned down from life-drawing classes in London for being too young to see nudes, he persuaded his mother to send him to Paris in 1939. ‘I stayed with a family recommended by one of my father’s pupils. Off I went and walked into the Académie de la Grande Chaumière where I did my first life drawing.’
Listening to him conjures up images of an Ealing comedy about the life of a jobbing artist in London in the 1940s. One imagines him played by the young Alec Guinness, his veneer of charm protecting an inner core of artistic ambition. During the war, he was rejected from service because of pleurisy and ended up as fire warden for Baker Street, although he was fired for guarding the Nash terraces rather than the Studebaker factory – ‘they were artistically more important.’ He and his friend Lucian Freud struggled to sell paintings and make ends meet. They met through the art collector and benefactor Peter Watson, who funded the avant-garde magazine Horizon: ‘He paid the rent on the top two floors of a Nash terrace that Lucian and I shared. It was £40 a year.’
Craxton sold his first painting in 1942, at the age of 20, and spent the modest sum on a painting by William Blake. Years later he sold the work, Satan Exulting over Eve, to the Tate. ‘I was mad about Blake because he was a talisman in the art firmament for me. He was linear and fought against the grand manner and all that pompous English painting of the eighteenth century. He was a great imaginative artist.
‘Blake was a true original. But England produces originals: think of Turner, Wright of Derby, Constable and Richard Parkes Bonington – when you look at a good Bonington, there’s nothing between you and the emotion of the landscape, the unity of sky and land.’
Craxton too is singular. His art mixes Greek light and subject matter with his love of Blake and admiration for Picasso to produce a style that combines ancient and modern, figures and abstraction. His work, and that of his contemporaries of the 1940s has been called neo-Romanticism. But Craxton rejects the label, preferring to be called an Arcadian painter. For him, classicism and romanticism are two sides of the same coin: he combines a love of line, with an almost spiritual use of colour and light.
For Craxton, a reverence for tradition and a fascination with new ideas are not mutually exclusive, which is why he was opposed to the RA in the 1940s and ’50s: ‘They preached against Picasso,’ he says of former PRA Alfred Munnings and his crowd. ‘Now I’m quite happy to be an RA. I was nominated by people who paint and know I’m a painter – Eduardo Paolozzi and Mary Fedden, who are two very different but wonderful artists. I was honoured to be asked to join them.’
With that he hops on the number thirteen bus and into the grey duvet of the London fog.
John Craxton’s work is shown in Poets in the Landscape: The Romantic Spirit in British Art, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (01243 774557), 31 March–10 June, see page 24; Bentley’s Oyster Bar and Grill, 11–15 Swallow Street, London, W1B (020 7734 4756)
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