John Craxton: Versatile artist who lived for many years in Greece and was much influenced by its landscape and people

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The Independent Online

John Craxton disliked being called a Neo-Romantic artist. It does not describe his entire life's output, but it seems inevitable that when art historians list the painters, writers, film-makers and theatre designers around the Second World War infused with a Neo-Romantic spirit, Craxton's name will remain among them.

His fine 1941 pen-and-wash Dreamer in Landscape showed early on why the Neo-Romantic label was attached to him. This intense study of a figure, head in hand, with a rich background of dense vegetation, distant landscape and a crescent moon, was used on the catalogue cover of Craxton's 1971 solo show at the Hamet Gallery. It had appeared, with the similarly dated Poet in Landscape, in the artist's 1967 retrospective of paintings and drawings at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.

It also featured in the Barbican's 1987 multi-artist show A Paradise Lost: the Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55. In the accompanying catalogue, Craxton admitted studying a book of William Blake's poetry and prose in the early 1940s and that "he endorsed my feelings on many issues". The painter Samuel Palmer was also "a great influence. Like Palmer, I painted dark sombre pictures with moons and mysterious atmospheres".

Blake and Palmer had inspired Craxton's seniors Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland to recall an earlier pastoralism in their pre-war work. Thus were sown the seeds of Neo-Romanticism, one of the few home-grown British art movements. It was not surprising that when artists such as Craxton, Michael Ayrton, Prunella Clough, Robert Colquhoun, John Minton, John Piper and Keith Vaughan developed their art in a wartime Britain, cut off from continental influences, Nash's and Sutherland's works proved influential. Although they never mustered to draft a manifesto, these artists were for Malcolm Yorke, writing the catalogue of the Albemarle Gallery's 1988 show Nine Neo-Romantic artists, "the Neo-Romantic first team."

John Craxton was born in 1922, the fourth of the five sons and one daughter of the Royal Academy of Music's professor of pianoforte and musicologist Harold Craxton and his violinist wife Essie Faulkner. John's sister was the notable oboist Janet Craxton, so it is not surprising that music, along with food and motorcycling, was one of his enthusiasms.

The Craxton household in St John's Wood was welcoming, jolly and chaotic; famous musicians and indigent students sharing meals and conversation. After a period on a Sussex farm as a small boy, Craxton was educated, generally unhappily, at several boarding schools. He was lucky, though, in his art teacher Elsie Barling, at Betteshanger school in Kent, whom Craxton described as "inspired".

Barling was much influenced by Frances Hodgkins, whom she had met in 1923, and with whom she painted abroad. Through Barling, the 10-year-old Craxton and fellow pupils had work shown at the Bloomsbury Gallery, winning national press acclaim. The exhibition was opened by Henry Tonks, the former Slade professor, known for his fine draughtsmanship, something Craxton aspired to from early on.

At the 1937 Paris Exposition Internationale, Craxton was impressed by Pablo Picasso's horrors-of-war picture Guernica, and the Surrealist Joan Miró's The Reaper. He went back to Paris in 1939 to study life drawing at L'Académie de la Grande Chaumière, in 1940 returning to London to enrol at the Westminster and Central Schools of Art.

In 1941 pleurisy prompted Craxton's rejection for military service. Around this time he met his patron Peter Watson, co-founder of the magazine Horizon, with Cyril Connolly, and the Institute of Contemporary Art. Through Watson, Craxton met the painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde.

With Lucian Freud he studied under Clive Gardiner at Goldsmiths' College School of Art, 1941-42, and together they often dodged lessons. For a time they shared a house. Craxton and Freud disliked the practice in some art schools of rubbing and fudging a pencilled line; instead, they favoured a decisive line.

In 1943, Craxton made the first of many expeditions to Pembrokeshire with Graham Sutherland. Sutherland's Association of Oaks and Paul Nash's Monster Field made a strong impact, although Craxton later claimed that by 1943 he "had already moved out of my Palmer phase."

During the following year Craxton had his first solo exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, a key London showplace for young and established artists. Outside London, many were made aware of his work through his powerful lithographs illustrating Geoffrey Grigson's anthology The Poet's Eye (1944). Four years later, Grigson produced a monograph on him.

Travel became increasingly important to Craxton. In 1945 he worked with Freud in the Scilly Isles, in 1946 visiting Greece for the first time, later joined there by Freud. In 1947 they shared an exhibition at E.L.T. Mesens' London gallery. Craxton returned to Greece several times from the 1950s on, interspersed with European and other travel, while retaining a studio in London.

Eventually he settled in Hania, Crete. In Greece he discovered new colour for his palette and how "to be a real person – real people, real elements, real windows – real sun above all. In a life of reality my imagination really works. I feel like an émigré in London – squashed flat."

Diversions in 1951 were attendance at L'Académie Julian in Paris, and a request from the choreographer Frederick Ashton to supply sets and costumes for his Festival of Britain production Daphnis and Chloë at Covent Garden. Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes were principal dancers.

If there was not universal approval for Craxton's costume designs, there was enthusiasm for his glowing sea-girt sets rich with vines, olive and fig trees, drawing on his developing appreciation of the Greek landscape. Craxton's designs were used several times for revivals, but were eventually lost. In 1966, Craxton re-staged Daphnis and Chloë for the Athens Festival and completed designs for the ballet Apollo at Covent Garden. When, in 2004, the Royal Ballet celebrated Ashton's centenary, despite old age Craxton re-created his Daphnis and Chloë conceptions largely from memory, achieving much of the original magic.

From 1970-76 Craxton made a voluntary exile from Greece during the rule of "the Colonels". During 1971-74 he worked on Landscape with the Elements, for the Cottrell memorial tapestry, at Stirling University.

After his first 1944 solo show with the Leicester Galleries, Craxton had five more there until 1966; others included several with the British Council in Athens from 1946; and four with Christopher Hull Gallery from 1982 until 1993, the year the artist was elected a Royal Academician.

His final solo exhibition, Works on Paper 1942-2001, at Art First in 2001, illustrated how Craxton's art had matured over the years. Picasso and Cubism, Sutherland, Neo-Romanticism, Byzantine art and the Greek landscape and its people had all informed his style over the years, but the pictures' underlying spiky linearity showed them to be unmistakably Craxton's.

His work is held by many important public, corporate and private collections in Britain and abroad; the Tate Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, Arts Council, British Council, British Museum, Government Art Collection, Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh and the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff among them.

David Buckman

John Leith Craxton, artist: born London 3 October 1922; died London 17 November 2009.

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