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Craxton, John Leith (1922–2009), artist, was born on 3 October 1922 at Acombe Lodge, 8 Grove End Road, St John's Wood, London, the fourth of five sons and fourth of six children of , pianist, and his wife, Essie May, née Faulkner (1890–1977), violinist. Craxton and his siblings inherited a gregarious joie de vivre from their parents. He became closest to his younger sister, , later an oboist. Relationships with his brothers were not always smooth. He found archaeology interesting from an early age, and helped on a dig at Verulamium (St Albans) before being sent away to a succession of schools, only one of which he recalled with any happiness. This was Betteshanger in Kent, where he gave credit to Elsie Barling, its inspired art teacher. Aged fourteen, while camping with the scouts on an island in the Seine, he was invited by the father of a school friend to see the Paris International Exhibition, where Picasso's Guernica and Miró's surrealist work made a deep impression. He returned to Paris in 1939 to study life drawing.

The outbreak of the Second World War necessitated a return to England, where Craxton enrolled the following year at the Westminster and Central schools of art. Pleurisy first contracted at unheated boarding schools meant that in 1941 when called up for military service he was exempted on medical grounds. About this time Peter Watson, the financier of Horizon magazine, introduced him to contemporary artists such as John Piper and Graham Sutherland, and the art historian Kenneth Clark. The London blitz damaged Acombe Lodge so the family retreated to Dorset, where Essie's sister Amy lived. Among their neighbours were EQ Nicholson and her children, while her architect husband Kit was away on military service. Craxton and she became great friends, and he painted the landscape around their home, the Mill House at Alderholt.

Late in 1941 Craxton met Lucian Freud when both were visiting Watson's flat in Kensington and, encouraged by Sutherland, they agreed to try the art classes on offer at Goldsmith's College. Craxton's rental of a maisonette at 14 Abercorn Place, St John's Wood, funded by Watson, found Freud on the upper floor sharing inspiration for life drawing, from dead animals to still lives. When Clark called round to see their recent work a mouldering carcass had to be hidden in the oven. Limpid faces stare out from canvases of this period: Freud's often of their contemporaries, while Craxton's based upon an Everyman figure as a poet or shepherd in an often moonlit landscape. Dreamer in Landscape (1942, Tate) was modelled by a German refugee boy staying with them at the time, and exemplified the thorough drawing style both artists achieved, having very little need of preparatory sketches or studies.

Strictly rationed petrol was eked out for a trip with EQ Nicholson to the Welsh borders in the summer of 1942. In an ink study made on the spot an uprooted tree dwarfs Llanthony Abbey (Tate), and Craxton later gave cited Paul Nash's Monster Field of three years earlier as a deep influence. The following year's venture further west to Pembrokeshire with Sutherland found Craxton combining organic form with Celtic mythology. Welsh Estuary Foreshore (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) was painted straight onto raw canvas burlap six feet wide and contained one of the first instances of his use of a single animal eye rather than that of a human: in this case belonging to a beached cuttlefish which shares an anguish with Picasso's Weeping Woman of 1937, a painting Craxton knew well from his neighbour Roland Penrose's collection in Hampstead.

Having taken part in mixed exhibitions Craxton was given his first solo show in 1944 at the Leicester Galleries. This met with success, buyers including Colin Anderson, John Lehmann, and Geoffrey Grigson. The latter commissioned illustrations for his Visionary Poems and Passages, or, The Poet's Eye, one of seven New Excursions into English Poetry. The volume was distinctive, as he favoured a simple two- or three-colour process for the sixteen strikingly modern and vigorous plates. Four years later Grigson published a monograph containing thirty-six of Craxton's colour plates, sponsored by Watson.

In the summer of 1945 Craxton travelled with Freud to the Scilly Isles, relishing a place free of interpretation by his contemporaries, the same instinct drawing him south across Europe as soon as wartime travel restrictions were lifted. He had seen reproductions of the work of Nikos Ghika's Hydra paintings and met the artist during the first post-war autumn. Through Watson he was invited to show in Zurich and visited Paris twice during the preparations, also perusing the studio of the late Paul Klee. Richard Olney, the American food writer living in Paris, was among Craxton's lovers at this time.

Over six feet tall, Craxton sported a moustache on and off from 1946. His twinkling eyes missed very little of their surroundings. Soon after the show of haunted landscapes opened in Switzerland, he met Noel (Peter), Lady Norton, wife of the British ambassador to Greece, an avid art collector herself, who in 1936 had co-founded the avant-garde London Gallery. She was returning with supplies for Greece and Craxton jumped at the chance to accompany her by train to Milan to see an exhibition of Modigliani portraits, and onward to Athens in a borrowed bomber. By May 1946 he was staying at the British embassy there. Encouraged to go to Poros by the Nortons' friend Patrick Leigh Fermor, he was joined by Freud in September and they both became captivated by the Mediterranean light. Their creative relationship was such that they even worked on the same drawings together and in the same sketchbooks, and their styles became so close that in retrospect it became difficult to distinguish their hands.

In 1947 Craxton made his first visit to Crete, the island he was to make his home from 1960, with interruptions due to the political situation in the early 1970s. The discovery of a place of charm and colour enlivened his paintings and inspired an increase in scale that was to become a hallmark of his later work. The solitude suffusing his wartime work was replaced by myriads of sailors, dancers, cats, and goats. He captured the vivacity of the local characters, often concentrating on portraits with geometric facets of light outlines, celebrating his release from the chiaroscuro of north London. He favoured fabrics and textures that reflected the colours and light of their backgrounds, and exaggerated highlights, particularly on clothes, to such a degree that they strike the viewer as practically fluorescent. He kept in touch with London and travelled back in 1950, working with Frederick Ashton on the Ravel ballet Daphnis and Chloë at Covent Garden. Cruises round the Greek islands followed in two successive summers with Ashton, other friends, and Margot Fonteyn, the petite and charming ballerina. Craxton's parents were delighted when they learned that an affair with their son had started. It was to be short-lived though: for the rest of his life Craxton was happily homosexual.

A joint show with Denton Welch was held in 1954 at the Leicester Galleries, comprising thirty-six portraits, fishing scenes, and tavern life in oil and conté crayon. Continuing to show there until 1966, Craxton experienced his first public recognition from a native institution in the form of a Whitechapel retrospective in 1967. After he had helped with Ashton's revival in 1966 of the Ravel ballet for the Athens Festival a request to provide both sets and costumes for Stravinsky's Apollo had swiftly followed. Bryan Robertson suggested in his catalogue introduction that these two projects ‘reach a peak rare in English stage design’ (Robertson, 5).

Craxton kept open house in his Venetian residence overlooking the harbour at Hania and enjoyed cooking for friends who came to visit. His deeply informed love of Byzantine art, particularly mosaics, led to consummate drawings with double- and triple-coloured lines. Careful in the preparation of his canvases and fastidious with his materials, he began to use tempera in the early 1960s, continuing a habit started in his teenage years of grinding his own pigments. Concerned about the way his paintings would be hung and curious to see where they ended up, he offered to help hang larger pictures for his clients. Conversely he remained somewhat disorganized with his finances and paperwork, and as an avid collector both of work by his artist friends and of disparate historical objects, his studios, suffused with the whiff of his French filterless cigarettes, quickly became cluttered. Island onlookers were surprised that this man could be having dinner in the embassy one day then frequenting sailors' haunts the next. While witnessing the commercialization of the Mediterranean with some despair, his pictures did not reflect any precise political commentary. When Michael Cacoyannis arrived to film Zorba the Greek Craxton was the obvious candidate to help with locations and even drove the principals to set and back as pillion on his favourite BSA motorbike.

Well-travelled outside Greece, in 1960 Craxton visited Russia and five years later went to Spain, especially seeking out El Greco's works in Toledo, followed by Portugal. In Africa from 1970 he relished the chance of studying exotic animals close up, and a particularly successful Lion Drinking in three colours was bought by Peter Pears, and remains on display at the Red House, Aldeburgh. From 1971, the year of his one-man show at Lady Adeane's influential Hamet Gallery, he worked for four years completing a tapestry commemorating T. L. Cottrell, Stirling University's chancellor. A harpsichord for the Hope Scott Trust was also decorated while he was living on Rose Street in Edinburgh.

In 1979 Craxton visited New York, where he looked round the Metropolitan Museum with his friend John Pope-Hennessy, the English curator there. He was particularly interested in discussing the provenance of their Cycladic harpist, bought in 1947, and his opinion that this marble carving was a modern forgery became well known through publications in 2000 and 2004. Ever mindful of the mystery and vulnerability of Crete's objects he would wait for heavy rain to fall in order to collect afterwards shards of vessels and tiles to help the custodians of the island's archaeology date and catalogue their evidence, but not all his efforts were appreciated by the authorities and he was arrested on at least one occasion. The London dealer Christopher Hull visited Hania in 1981 to persuade him to have a London show; 1984 marked the purchase by the Tate of a group of his paintings and drawings; and the following year Leigh Fermor wrote the introduction to the catalogue for the third of his five exhibitions at Hull's Belgravia gallery. In 1987 ‘A Paradise Lost’, one of a series of Barbican survey shows of British art, opened up Craxton's work to a new audience, although he himself had reservations about the show's subtitle, which included the description ‘neo-romantic’, a term of which he did not approve.

In 1992 Craxton was appointed consular correspondent in Hania, and established himself more officially as a protector of Crete's heritage. Cats remained favourite companions and many of his letters and collages contained portraits of the myriad strays that recognized a comfortable berth in his studios. Election to the Royal Academy, proposed by his friends Eduardo Paolozzi and Mary Fedden, was gained in 1993, accompanied by acceptance of a diploma work, a tempera rendition of the characteristic kiln-shaped mountains of Kaloudiana, against which a frieze of goats processes across the width of the cotton duck canvas. He liked the tradition of tableaux, exaggerating the tilting up of a perspective, and employed photographs to help with the most ambitious of his portraits and works, particularly when working between two studios. Increasingly reluctant to finish a painting before starting the next, he sometimes had two paintings on adjacent easels staring out at him, prompting him to christen the affliction ‘procraxtonation’.

The generosity of spirit inherited from Craxton's parents was reflected in a wide circle of friends. A love of visual puns led him to annotate collages, postcards, and Christmas greetings, while a self-deprecating humour prevented any recipient from mistaking this for self-satisfaction: his design for his eightieth birthday party invitation took the form of a lonely hearts advertisement. This was misleading as he mostly shared his life from the end of 1973 with Richard Riley, with whom he enthusiastically visited museums and collected objects. Later they entered into a civil partnership. In 2006 Craxton returned to London for the last time, and a diagnosis of cancer followed. He died in the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, on 17 November 2009, following a heart attack, and was survived by Richard Riley. His memorial service was held on 4 February 2010 in St James's Church, Piccadilly, where the address was given by an old friend and keen collector of his work, David Attenborough. Following cremation his ashes were scattered by Richard Riley in the harbour at Hania.

Magdalen Evans

Sources  

G. Grigson, John Craxton (1948) · B. Robertson, John Craxton (Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1967) · P. Leigh Fermor, introduction, John Craxton (Christopher Hull Gallery, 1985) · The last Romantics (Barbican Art Gallery, 1987) · A. Lambirth, Critics choice (The Art Shop: Abergavenny, 2006) · The Times (19 Nov 2009); (16 Dec 2009) · Daily Telegraph (19 Nov 2009) · The Guardian (20 Nov 2009) · The Independent (10 Dec 2009) · Evening Standard (28 Jan 2010) · Eastern Daily Press (28 May 2011) · G. Hastings, Inhabiting delight (2011) · I. Collins, John Craxton (2011) · D. Attenborough, The Culture Show, television programme, BBC2, 2 June 2011 · WW (2009) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, interview recordings · BL NSA, National Life Stories Collection, artists' lives, F11452-465


Likenesses  

F. H. Man (Hans Baumann), bromide print, 1940–49, NPG, London · J. Craxton, self-portrait, crayon, 1943, Manchester City Art Gallery, Manchester; repro. in Concise catalogue of British watercolours and drawings (1984–6) · L. Freud, portrait, charcoal and coloured crayon on paper, 1944 ('Man with Coloured Crayons'), Bridgeman Art Library, London · J. Craxton, self-portrait, chalk on green paper, 1945, NPG, London · L. Freud, oils, c.1947 · L. Miller, group portrait, 1951 (with Tony Penrose), Lee Miller Archives; repro. in R. Calvocoressi, Lee Miller: portraits from a life (c.2002), 150 · W. Suschitzky, bromide print, 1960, NPG, London · J. Craxton, oils, 1963, Christopher Hull Gallery; repro. in M. Yorke, Spirit of place: nine neo-romantic artists and their times (1988), 302 · J. Craxton, self-portrait, conté pencil, 1989, repro. in Self portraits: 20th century British artists (Piccadilly Gallery, 1991) · N. Moore, linocut, 1990 · Ghika, pen and ink, Christopher Hull Gallery · obituary photographs · photographs, repro. in I. Collins, John Craxton

Wealth at death  

£8,674,845: probate, 6 March 2012, CGPLA Eng. & Wales