Shortly before his death, in 2009, John Craxton said: 'I arrived in Greece (in 1946) knowing I couldn’t draw but I would sit down in front of a man, say in a marketplace, surrounded by horses or children, and somehow think myself into the man, allowing his image into my personality and then drawing almost unconsciously. I got amazing likenesses in 20 minutes. They thought it was uncanny. I’d made myself into a machine – a camera'.
In fact, Craxton’s early draughtsmanship had been acclaimed back in Britain from the time of a Leicester Galleries exhibition debut in the spring of 1944, but his new-found forté was for depicting other people. Greeks loved to pose for their portraits and, when lodging on the island of Poros from June 1946, Craxton found his landlady’s son, Petros Mastropetros, an especially pleasing and readily available sitter. When Lucian Freud joined his friend that autumn they both worked on Petros portaits – Craxton swiftly transforming the teenager into a sleeping fisherman in one ravishing picture, while Freud slowly produced one of the most exquisite likenesses of his entire career (long owned by Craxton, the icon-like painting, Portrait of a Greek Man, was sold in these Rooms on 27 June 2012, lot 23). Here the glorious image that Craxton has allowed into his receptive personality is also an impression of Greece. Having stayed briefly above a garage at the British Embassy in Athens, Craxton had been urged to move on to Poros, one of the most accessible islands from the port of Piraeus, by his traveller and future writer friend Patrick Leigh Fermor. Writer-wanderer Lawrence Durrell found Poros 'an enchanting arrangement, obviously designed by demented Japanese children with the aid of Paul Klee and Raoul Dufy' – the main harbour town reminding him of a child’s box of bricks rapidly and fluently set up against a small shoulder of headland and painted in bright colours barely dry. The author called it 'the happiest place I have ever known' and, until his discovery of Crete on island-hopping tours during the rest of the 1940s and through the 1950s, Craxton whole-heartedly agreed. He eventually settled on Crete in 1960.
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.