John Craxton

Paintings by John Craxton

Born to pianist and composer Harold Craxton and his wife Essie in October of 1922, John Leith Craxton RA, was an English painter. Considered too young to attend nude life drawing at the Chelsea School of Art, he instead studied at Paris’s Academie Julian and later at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in 1929. With the outbreak of war in Europe, he returned to London and completed his training at Westminster School of Art and the Central School of Arts and Crafts.

Rejected for military service, Craxton attended Goldsmiths College, part of the University of London, and had his first solo exhibition was in London in 1942 at the Swiss Cottage Café. In 1943, Craxton traveled through the Pembrokeshire woodlands with artist and designer Graham Sutherland, who had recently begun painting surreal, organic landscapes in oils. Returning to London, he had his first major solo show in 1944 at the Leicester Galleries, known for its exhibitions of modern international artists.

John Craxton’s work was considered part of the Neo-Romantic revival which sought to provide meaning and content to the modern existence. His early works done before 1945 showed the influences of artists Graham Sutherland and painter and printmaker Samuel Palmer whose visionary Shoreham landscapes had a great effect on both Craxton and Sutherland. Craxton was also heavily influenced by his friend and patron Peter Watson, a wealthy gay English art collector who provided financial assistance to Craxton, as well as Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud among others.

With the end of the Second World War, John Craxton began to travel extensively from 1946 to 1966, during which time he visited Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Istanbul, and Italy. However, his main interest was in Greece, and especially the island of Crete, where he permanently settled in 1970 with return visits to Paris and London. Writing in his memoirs, American painter and food writer Richard Olmey remembered Craxton’s visits to Paris during the summer of 1951: “Most nights, John Craxton, a young English painter, arrived to share my bed; we kept each other warm. He moved in a bucolic dreamworld, peopled with beautiful Greek goat herders. Soon he left for Greece.“

In 1951, Craxton designed the stage sets for the production of French composer Maurice Ravel’s longest work, “Daphnis et Chloé”, a retelling of the romance tale from the second century concerning the love between the goatherd Daphnis and the shepherdess Chloé. Craxton was able to use his experiences in Greece as a basis for his set designs. The Sadler’s Wells Ballet, now The Royal Ballet, performed Ravel’s work at Covent Garden in central London. In 1968, Craxton produced costumes and scenery for one more ballet: the 1968 performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Apollo” performed at the Royal Opera House.

John Craxton exhibited his works in England and Greece, with a major retrospective of his work shown at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1967. He his work has appeared in print magazines; he also illustrated English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor’s series of books, and  produced lithographs for several anthologies edited by poet and critic Geoffrey Grigson. Elected a Royal Academician in 1993, Craxton also became a British Honorary Consul of Crete. He died at the age of eighty-seven in November of 2009. He, never married, was survived by his long-term partner whom he met in the early 1970s, Richard Riley. 

Top Insert Image: John Craxton, “Tree Trunk and Ruin”, 1944, Watercolor, Ink and Gouache on Paper, 21 x 14.5 cm, Private Collection

Middle Insert Image: Wolfgang Suschitzky, “John Craxton in Hydra, Greece”, 1969, Gelatin Silver Print

Bottom Insert Image: John Craxton, “Self Portrait”, 1946-1947, Oil on Paper, 32.3 x 23.2 cm, Private Collection

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