In the spring of 1939, John Craxton went to Paris to draw life models and absorb the atmosphere of the cosmopolitan continent. He was 16. Forced to return home by looming war, the youthful prodigy spent the next six years with a sense of entrapment which, much as he hated the label, produced some of the most haunting images of neo-romanticism. His dark and menaced landscapes featured solitary male figures, often with eyes closed as they withdrew into the safety of their own interior worlds. In picture titles they were poets, dreamers, shepherds and dancers, but all were emblematic portraits of the artist himself. In the most recognisable likenesses Craxton was a watchful, wary presence with a suggestion of the illness sparing him military service (almost certainly undiagnosed tuberculosis). He roamed as far as he could – painting in Dorset with E.Q. Nicholson, Pembrokeshire with Graham Sutherland and, in the first peace-time summer, the Scilly Isles with Lucian Freud. But in May 1946 he was finally able to escape abroad - travelling from Paris to Switzerland and on to Athens and then, by mid-summer, the island of Poros. Although retaining a base in London, for the rest of his long life he would be wedded to Greece – with the faces and places of the Aegean, and ultimately of Crete, filling his lightening and brightening canvases.
This confident and wide-eyed likeness was to be one of his last self-portraits. Henceforward he would be concerned with the physical world around him rather than the psychological dramas within himself. And anyway, as his health improved his angst evaporated and he gained a matchless love of life. The young artist so marked by William Blake and Samuel Palmer, and then by Picasso, has clearly been affected here by icons admired in the Byzantine Museum in Athens. But he has also remained faithful to an even earlier influence. When a child staying with an aunt and uncle – artists both – in the wilds of Dorset, he had found himself within a short walk of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Farnham. Here a tearaway from formal schooling effectively educated himself. Among all the works of local and global archaeology and anthropology he had been most moved by Fayum portraits from the coffin lids of Roman-era (but Greek-cultured) Egypt. Those ancient images recalling the deceased in their youthful prime inspired John Craxton’s toast to life in Greece.
We are very grateful to Ian Collins for preparing this catalogue entry. Ian Collins is the author of a John Craxton monograph published by Lund Humphries and curator of a Craxton exhibition, opening at Salisbury Museum on 30 January 2016.