In 1958, a dozen years after the discovery of Greece that would fix his life and art forever, John Craxton contributed two Winter and Summer panorama designs to a competition for murals at London’s Morley College.
They included observed figures and vignettes which had obsessed him since his arrival on the island of Poros, where he had ventured on the recommendation of his writer friend Patrick Leigh Fermor: girl with scarf; child carried on shoulders; child with cat; taverna musician, dancer and diners; goats; harvesters; sleeping sailor; bathers on beach; boy on wall. The last of these portraits may well have been modelled by a conscript to the naval training college close to the house where the artist lodged.
All of the incidents and individuals had been combined in a couple of artworks intended as a formal farewell to the Saronic Gulf island, as the widely-travelled artist had decided to work and settle elsewhere in Greece. First he was bound for Hydra, and finally for Crete.
He was narrowly beaten in the Morley contest – and the maquette panels were subsequently acquired by Nuffield College, Oxford. John Craxton, a natural painter of frescoes, would never create a mural – though he did go on to produce a magnificent tapestry with multiple Aegean motifs in the 1970s for the University of Stirling.
But he continued working through the featured themes in that pair of panoramas. Boy on a Wall had first appeared in drawings from the mid-1950s and recurred, when partnered with the girl with scarf, for a large panel Craxton painted for a bathroom wall in the family house in Hampstead, where he retained a studio for the rest of his life.
The well-considered portrait offered here demonstrates the painter’s mature technique of linear colour, soon after he had moved from oils to his own version of tempera. By this point he has blended a semi-Cubist style with a highly personal response to Byzantine art, and particularly to mosaics, within the fractured planes of his picture surface. Technically, he tended to re-invent his approach with every picture – and often changed course once a work was underway.
To the left of this Boy on a Wall there is a hint of a rocky ravine – a favourite Craxton subject - and to the right the sparkle of Mediterranean sunlight on rippling seawater has been conveyed in broken or continuous lines, divided into parallel blocks. The latter effect, first conveyed in paint and silver paper in the Craxton design for the 1951 Frederick Ashton ballet Daphnis and Chloe, would further evolve in the great Hydra island panoramas the artist began in 1959.
In art, and in life, here was a man who disliked finishing anything. He inhabited various building sites very happily for many decades.
When this fine work was shown in the retrospective exhibition John Craxton: Paintings and Drawings 1941-1966, held at the Whitechapel Gallery in London from January 1967, it appeared in the catalogue with the tell-tale dates 1959-66. It was one of several long-nurtured works to reveal the defining art of the deadline.
We are very grateful to Ian Collins for preparing this catalogue entry.