art dominic green
A Colourist in Crete
John Craxton: A Life of Gifts
By Ian Collins (Yale University Press 384pp £25)
‘Shepherds near Knossos’, 1947
John Craxton would be better known had he not absconded from Britain at an early age and spent most of his life in a house by the harbour at Chania in Crete. His best-known images are his woodcutlike cover illustrations for his friend Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travelogues. The subtitle of this biography, ‘A Life of Gifts’, might be a pitch to Paddy-philes: A Time of Gifts was Leigh Fermor’s 1977 account of his youthful walk across Europe. But the rising interest in Craxton’s life and work since his death in 2009 doesn’t entirely derive from the Leigh Fermor connection. It also reflects the labours of Ian Collins, who published the first fulllength monograph on Craxton in 2011 and has now written the first (and surely definitive) biography of this lyrical and sophisticated English modernist.
Pianists of a certain age will already know the Craxton surname. John’s father, Harold, was a composer and arranger who introduced Debussy to the English, accompanied Nellie Melba and Clara Butt, and taught generations of piano players, including Winifred Atwell and those of us who first flailed at the keyboard while peering at children’s primers with titles like Easy Elizabethans. Born in 1922, Craxton was the fourth of Harold and his wife Essie’s six children. Their house in St John’s Wood was full of music – almost every room had its upright piano – and people too, for the Craxtons ‘hosted the musically talented and monetarily challenged for lunch, weekends, weeks, months or maybe a year or four’. One pupil who became a family friend was Elizabeth Jane Howard, who in The Beautiful Visit modelled the protagonist’s parents on Harold and Essie, and in the Cazalet Chronicles turned John’s governess, Miss Cobham, into Miss Milliment.
Harold and Essie were doting and progressive parents who fed their children live yoghurt and pulses, holidayed at Selsey, which was then a ‘bohemian resort’, and sent John to board at a school run according to the eccentric principles of Rudolf Steiner. Their home was bombed in the Blitz and the Craxtons moved to a large house on Kidderpore Avenue in Hampstead; its music studio is still going and is maintained by the Craxton Memorial Trust.
In 1940, Harold’s pupil James Iliff introduced the eighteen-year-old John to Peter Watson, the funder of Horizon, who in turn introduced John to David Gascoyne, the poet who had ‘introduced Surrealist poetry to Britain’, Cyril Connolly and Lucian Freud. Not long afterwards, John decamped to Dorset to take lifedrawing classes at Salisbury School of Art and Crafts. There, he met two of his first lovers, George Parker, and his friend Trelawney Dayrell Reed, an ‘amateur archaeologist, poet, painter and authority on the pub game of Shove-Halfpenny’.
After returning to London, Craxton encountered the drawings of Samuel Palmer and renewed his acquaintance with Augustus John, whom he’d first met at the Greyhound pub in Fordingbridge, Hampshire, so drunk that ‘pink rats’ seemed to be jumping out of John’s eyes. In 1941, David Cecil asked Craxton to paint the fireplace in his set at Oxford, which is where Nevill Coghill, who had been Auden’s tutor, slipped him the Nonesuch Press reprint of William Blake’s Poetry and Prose. In 1946 his works were exhibited alongside those of Freud, Graham Sutherland and other Neo-Romantics at the Lefevre Gallery.
This is exactly the sort of detail that biographies of painters should contain, especially when, as in Craxton’s case, there is a monograph full of technical information about the paintings. Yet while unravelling the social webs of modernist London, Collins doesn’t lose sight of his subject. He persuaded Craxton to sit for recorded interviews in his last years, and Collins pulls out the quotation that shows that Craxton, for all his connections, was going his own way: ‘You are either Romantic in spirit or not. You can’t be “Neo-Romantic”. There was never a Neo-Romantic group as such.’
It was in 1946 that Craxton decided to escape the ‘claustrophobia’ of England for Athens. He caught a lift in a ‘borrowed bomber’ with Lady ‘Peter’ Norton, the art-mad wife of the British ambassador to Athens. She was a friend of Joan
Literary Review | may 2021 10