John Craxton: A Life of Gifts 
by Ian Collins.
Yale, 383 pp., £25, May, 978 0 300 25529 4
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‘Hotel by the Sea’ (1946)

Three women,​ all in their way members of the higher bohemia, were having lunch in a London restaurant. Agnes Magruder was a grand Bostonian, ‘a character from a Henry James novel’ according to her daughter. She was known as ‘Magouche’, the name given her by the painter Arshile Gorky, with whom she had a turbulent marriage until his suicide in 1948. Joan Leigh Fermor, a former secretary to Osbert Lancaster, was the wife of Patrick Leigh Fermor, famous at that time for his activities during the war, including the controversial kidnapping of the German commander on Crete. The third was Barbara Hutchinson, whose mother, Mary, a cousin of Lytton Strachey, had been a Bloomsbury hostess and a model for Matisse. Barbara had married the Greek painter Nico Ghika. The women were acquaintances rather than friends, but over lunch they shared details of their lives. Magouche, it transpired, had a house on Crete; so, perhaps less surprisingly, did Joan. Barbara added that she had one too. Before long it became apparent that they were all talking about the same house in a backstreet in Chania. Each of them had given the painter John Craxton a lump sum to repair it, in exchange for a half share in the ownership. None of them minded the imposture, which had been going on for about twenty years, and they all remained friends with Craxton, which says something about his character. His nursery school teacher had reported that ‘a particularly loveable personality covers a multitude of offences’, and this remained the case throughout his life. Ian Collins’s engagingly partisan biography conveys qualities not easily evoked, the appeal of a character whose default mode was happiness and who, if he had a tendency to ‘put his own interests first’ and to be ‘unreliable in an emergency’, had a care for others too. He made many friends, ‘mostly for life’.

The friendship that soured was with Lucian Freud. The relationship became an obsession for them both and a catastrophe for Craxton at the end of his life. It bracketed a career that never fulfilled its early promise, and the bitterness between the two men was as intense as their early intimacy. Collins is eager to prove that Craxton is underrated as an artist; he is certainly underappreciated but, perhaps more important, he is misplaced, misfiled in art history, for reasons that include the tangled relationship with Freud. The last exhibition of Craxton’s work in his lifetime was in London in 2001, yet by the time of his death in 2009 he was, if not forgotten, then out of sight, associated with an earlier generation, since overtaken by Bacon and Freud. Craxton still sits with John Minton, Michael Ayrton, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash as a Neo-Romantic painter, part of the postwar reawakening of the national landscape tradition of Blake and Palmer. In 1987 an influential exhibition at the Barbican, A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, reinforced the categorisation for another generation. Yet of the five artists in the conventional Neo-Romantic grouping, Craxton was by then the only one still alive. Of his contemporaries in the exhibition, Freud, born like Craxton in 1922, was the only one with a significant reputation and the two pictures by him were works from the 1940s. By 1987 he was famous as the painter of enigmatic interior scenes like Painter and Model, completed that year, in which Freud sprawls naked on a sofa while the painter Celia Paul stands dressed, apparently contemplating painting him.

Craxton had also changed by the 1980s. For many years he had lived mostly in Greece. He still painted landscapes, but his work had none of the damp, green, memory-sodden melancholy of the English and Welsh valleys. The light in them was sharp, reflected off the Aegean; his palette in paintings such as Landscape, Hydra (1960-62) shimmers. The figures in these vivid landscapes were seldom single: they were local people, often the sailors who were his on-off lovers, sitting or dancing at tavernas. The mood was playful. Craxton liked small jokes, hiding the date of a painting in the label on a bottle of beer, or turning his signature into part of the pattern on a cigarette packet. His art had become a quest for colour, the imagery increasingly abstract, brightening into ‘dazzling arrangements’ like mosaic. ‘I never think about colours,’ he wrote. ‘They alight there like birds.’

A category error is not the same as an injustice, however, and for all Collins’s advocacy it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Craxton’s art did not develop as fully as might have been hoped from his early work. Collins tacitly acknowledges the fact by taking three hundred pages to get to 1967, leaving barely sixty pages to cover the remaining four decades of Craxton’s life. The question of his reputation and undeserved obscurity is to some extent a separate one, and Collins attributes it to a combination of temperament, circumstance and the machinations of Freud. Cheerfulness in art wasn’t fashionable in the later 20th century. The public that admired the naked light bulbs of Freud or Bacon’s oppressive interiors didn’t respond to Craxton’s sunbathed Cretan scenes. His obscurity also owed something to Freud’s enmity. When, as Craxton put it, he ‘got into society’ in the early 1950s, Freud was annoyed. ‘He didn’t want me to meet any of his grand, rich friends,’ nor did he welcome Craxton’s comments on the incorrect perspective in some of his pictures or his freely voiced criticism of Freud’s treatment of women. But Craxton could have been more famous if he had worked at it, made more connections, been more strategic about his career. The story as Collins tells it has something of the fable of the grasshopper and the ant, in which the balance of life to art is constantly being weighed, and for Craxton – the grasshopper – is always decided on the side of life.

Craxton came from a large family, one of the six children of Harold and Essie Craxton, who tumbled up in a ramshackle household in St John’s Wood. Elizabeth Jane Howard, who knew them all when she was young and later wove them into her Cazalet novels, described the Craxtons as exuding happiness like pollen, which rubbed off. The pianist Harold Isaacs remembered overcrowded Acomb Lodge as ‘a very strange house’, adding enigmatically: ‘Essie knitted it.’ It was Essie who kept the show more or less on the road by managing the finances, while Harold taught pianoforte at the Royal Academy of Music. He had worked as an accompanist to all the Edwardian divas, once crossing Canada on a private train with Dame Clara Butt, but had never passed a professional exam. His example, as well as his constant faith in his children’s abilities, encouraged John in his rejection of formal education. A succession of ‘progressive’ schools were not advanced enough to cope with ‘Crackers’, as he was inevitably known, and he ricocheted from one to another until he could legally leave, emerging with no qualifications and a form of spelling known to friends as ‘anglo-Craxton’. The only test he ever passed was for a motorbike licence.

One of many discouraging school reports complained of his immaturity and lack of concentration. In fact, he already knew what interested him: when ‘not watched’, a maths master wrote, he would be ‘aimlessly scribbling and drawing pictures’. By the time he was eight Craxton had settled on his future preoccupations. Staying in Lincolnshire with his godmother he unearthed pottery shards and Roman coins in the fields and was fascinated by them. With the family’s characteristic capacity to arrive at the right place by an oblique trajectory, Essie took advantage of the fact that Harold had been giving concerts at the London Museum to introduce her son to the director, Mortimer Wheeler, the most famous archaeologist of the day. He was then excavating Verulamium, the Roman city near St Albans, and John went to the dig each day on the bus and spent hours helping to uncover the mosaics. Over the next thirty years he travelled to see mosaics in the monasteries of Greece, Ravenna, Pompeii and Istanbul. He found in the Byzantine work ‘qualities of incredible sensuality and depth of feeling’. Having been ‘brought up to believe that oil pigment was the primary material for achieving illusion, in all senses of the word, as well as creating colour’, the encounter with Byzantine art was both ‘a disruptive and strengthening experience’. Craxton never worked in mosaic, but he learned from its use of ‘reverse perspective’, in which the vanishing point is with the viewer rather than on an artificial horizon line within the picture plane. It was, he pointed out, ‘what the Cubists thought they’d invented’, and the insight informed his own work when he began to paint in Greece, where the brilliant light created a ‘structural’ perspective unlike the tonal perspective of northern Europe.

As a young teenager at the only school where he was relatively happy, Betteshanger in Kent, he painted a mural and was described in the local paper as having ‘the strength and maturity of a finished artist’. On visits to the Pitt Rivers Museum he discovered Cycladic art and from his teens he longed for Greece. Once he could shake off the constraints of childhood he could afford to drift about and paint, ‘just sponging off my parents’. Indulged by Essie and even more by Harold, who loved the idea of having an artist in the family, he was much resented by his brothers and found their hostility a more useful incentive to work than his parents’ indulgence. With the outbreak of war in 1939 the idea of Greece receded further, but what Collins calls Craxton’s ‘private war’ may have been the making of him. He went to the Central School and learned to draw, and through another of the floating population at his parents’ home met Peter Watson. In Watson, the heir to the Maypole Dairy Company fortune, and founder with Cyril Connolly and Stephen Spender of Horizon, Craxton found a friend, an indulgent patron and a way into the avant-garde. He had a narrow brush with conscription, from which he was exempted because, according to the sergeant who gave him the news, ‘You’d be as much use to the war effort as a three-legged horse.’ Craxton was painfully thin and it later transpired that his lungs had been damaged by pleurisy, but he had plenty of energy and spent the war mostly in London, painting. It was then that he embarked on the relationship with Freud. They were something more than friends, less than lovers, but compulsively involved. There was an element of mutual narcissism, the intense intimacy of teenagers looking for a soulmate but also for their image reflected in another. They drew and painted each other repeatedly, becoming mentally entwined, interfused in the other’s work and, for some years, inseparable. They shared a flat, or rather Lucian moved into the studio that Watson rented for Craxton in Abercorn Place, and sometimes worked together on a single picture. During the Blitz they drank at the French pub in Soho, cycled out during air raids and climbed over ruins on bombsites. Sometimes they went to the home of Freud’s late grandfather, which was not yet the Freud Museum, and took turns to lie on the famous couch.

The blackout was convenient for sex. Freud later said he couldn’t go out without getting the clap. Craxton, who ‘might be best described’, according to Collins, as ‘a homosexual who loved women and sometimes … went to bed with female friends as an extension of friendship’, also took advantage of the wartime mood of daring and heightened adrenaline in the face of danger. Gay sex was illegal at the time, but Craxton’s disregard for rules of any sort meant that he wasn’t inhibited psychologically or practically. He did not, however, sleep with Freud, despite Lucian making a couple of passes. Collins suggests Craxton mistrusted him and feared emotional if not actual blackmail. Freud later said that he ‘never knew Johnny was queer’, which may or may not have been true. Not all of their antics were amusing. Freud’s steel-capped boots were often used to kick in plate-glass windows and he enjoyed yelling about ‘filthy yids’ in crowded pubs. Sometimes Craxton would pretend to beat him up and he would roll in the gutter until a horrified passer-by tried to intervene. At Abercorn Place neighbours were driven to distraction by the shouting and the crunch of broken glass from the Victorian pictures that they bought in bulk at street markets for the frames. Craxton kept a couple of Palmer engravings but painted over a Landseer.

By the end of the war Freud and Craxton were both becoming well known. They were part of the group of artists associated with Horizon that included Graham Sutherland and Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde and very much not, Craxton later insisted, part of the Ayrton-Minton Neo-Romantics. It wasn’t just that he didn’t know the artists personally, and like most people disliked the bombastic Ayrton; he was differently constituted. ‘You are either a Romantic in spirit or you are not’, he said later, and there was neither in his work nor in his character that longing for the unattainable, that nostalgia or melancholy. In the postwar years Craxton and Freud not only exhibited together several times, they were seen in the same way, both key figures in determining what Herbert Read called, in Horizon, ‘the fate of modern painting’. John Lehmann used their work to illustrate a volume of Penguin New Writing and Peter Watson, who co-curated the first exhibition of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, chose both of them, along with Bacon, Hepworth and Moore, to be shown with the great European modernists, including Klee, Matisse, Giacometti and Picasso. Of the British artists, Craxton’s is the name that has faded.

The ICA exhibition perhaps marked the high point for his reputation. He had by then fulfilled his need for warmth and sun, and was reluctantly contemplating the prospect of a return to London. ‘I dread town life, this place spoils me & I suffer a million nerves when I have to face the proposition of no more mountain water or clear air, sea & my friends in the local taverna or this quiet house with no telephone or traffic outside.’ After the bitter winter of 1946-47 many in Britain were longing for the Mediterranean. Collins might have made more of an effort to evoke the 1950s, which he writes off as a ‘dull’ decade, repeating the clichéd and inaccurate suggestion that until Elizabeth David published her Book of Mediterranean Food no British person had used olive oil except as a cure for earache. Craxton, however, found England both dull and cold and from now on spent as much time as he could in Greece, where he faced the ‘unending challenge’ of developing his art in the face of ‘unyielding beauty’. His pictures still sold. The Tate bought one from Stephen Spender in 1957, but Wyndham Lewis made a fair point in calling Craxton’s work from this time ‘a prettily tinted cocktail that … does not quite kick hard enough’. In 1954 it was Nicholson, Freud and Bacon who represented Britain at the Venice Biennale.

Craxton’slife in Greece was an extension by other means of his childhood world of high bohemia, in which there were seldom more than two or three degrees of separation from anyone he wanted to know. His first trip was made possible by Lady Norton, wife of the British ambassador to Greece, whom Craxton met at an exhibition opening in Zurich. On hearing that he wanted to go to Athens, she mentioned that she had left a ‘borrowed bomber’ in Milan after a trip to get new curtains for the embassy and could offer him a lift. There were rich Americans with yachts and an intense friendship, which became for a while a love affair, with Margot Fonteyn, who ‘rose above every adversity’ when Craxton took her on an island cruise in a battered caique and she sat on an octopus. But he was no mere tourist or incomer. His childhood love of Cycladic art remained, and he made friends with local people of every sort. He learned Greek from the gardeners at the Athens embassy and later from his many lovers, developing a fluent demotic style, a mixture of obscenities and dialect that amused or startled native speakers, depending on their sensibilities. The maid in one grand household who answered the phone to him announced there was a lorry driver on the line. His central relationship for many years was with Nico Ghika and the Leigh Fermors, a ‘cosmopolitan quartet’ who relied on one another and on John and Paddy’s ‘reckless charm’ to get by.

Charm wasn’t always enough. Craxton’s optimism, fluent Greek and lifelong disregard of rules and danger saw him travel safely through Greece during the civil war and after. It got him off on several occasions when his intense interest in sailors was misinterpreted as spying. There were also persistent, untrue rumours that he was smuggling antiquities out of the country and it was while being questioned about this that he made a mistake. A local policeman wanted to know about a small sculpture of an owl, which was in fact Craxton’s own work. Craxton pulled it apart and said (in Greek): ‘Look it’s made of brick, like this –’ tapping the policeman on the head with it. The policeman was not amused and he had a retentive memory. When in 1967, after the military coup, he found himself in a position to have Craxton deported, he did. A ten-year hiatus followed, which Craxton felt as an exile, before he returned to Greece.

By this point he and Freud had drifted apart, at first without rancour. Freud’s fame had risen as Craxton’s diminished, and their meetings became rarer. Freud grew closer to Francis Bacon or, as Craxton put it, ‘Lucian began to drop me when he found a better painter.’ It was Craxton’s decision to sell some early Freud drawings, on one of the many occasions when he was short of cash, that soured things. The drawings were sold on to a dealer who asked Freud to sign them. Freud, furious, claimed they were fake and had a cease and desist letter sent to Craxton by Arnold Goodman, the feared society lawyer. When Craxton exhibited one of his portraits of Freud with the Fine Art Society, Freud said it was not of him and had it withdrawn. He created an impression of Craxton as a chancer making dishonest use of an old and insignificant relationship. When Judith Bumpus wanted to interview Craxton for a Radio 3 profile of Freud, he declined.

Lucian is a dab hand at smokescreening his past … I myself deplore the way that facts concerning his early years have been distorted & omitted by serious critics aided and abetted by the painter. But does all this matter much? He hangs well in his self-made private angst academy.

Craxton wasn’t good at angst, or feuds. Baffled as well as hurt, he allowed himself to become obsessed. Natasha Spender recalled that the rupture and Freud’s attempt to ‘ruin his reputation … poisoned Johnny’s whole life’ and that to some extent it was his own fault. ‘He should not have let [Freud] live rent-free in his brain.’ Once back in Crete, however, Craxton was mostly happy. The 1980s were kind to him and that, like the ‘unyielding beauty’ of Greece, was a problem for his art. He found it difficult to finish paintings. In 1990 he was made consular correspondent, responsible for helping British nationals – who were coming on holiday in increasing numbers – if they got into difficulty. He was only moderately effective in that capacity, but he enjoyed being piped on and off naval ships and having a birthday party on the royal yacht Britannia, whose decor he found ‘pure Sunningdale’. Eventually age and infirmity made the house in Chania unliveable and he returned to England. Collins, who knew Craxton well by now, kept an eye on him, getting him to hospital in time to prevent an ulcer from killing him. ‘I know you’re only doing this so I’m still around to help with your book,’ Craxton said when he recovered.

This close observation of one’s subject has its advantages. Freud was cruel when he said Craxton had a ‘terrifically strong personality but unfortunately lacks any character’, yet he had a point. Craxton lived intensely in the moment. Reviewing his past, he saw it as ‘a succession of happy accidents’. His lack of ambition, his pleasure in the present made him a wonderful friend. Magouche remembered the trouble he took to help her furnish a house or give her children rides on his motorbike – ‘he gave so generously of his time’ – but such kindnesses are ephemeral, they make for a happy life but an inadequate afterlife. Collins captures the details that made Craxton loveable, such as his habit, when he could no longer drink Armagnac, of dabbing it behind his ears like scent. The only bitterness at the end was the quarrel with Freud. Asked by a doctor, when he was nearing death, what his ‘priorities’ were for the rest of his life, Craxton replied: ‘It’s essential that I outlive Lucian Freud!’ She gave the most consoling possible answer. ‘Who is Lucian Freud?’

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