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Inspired by Greece, forgotten by Britain: why maverick painter John Craxton deserves his moment in the sun

He was flatmates with Lucian Freud before they later fell out, and he was largely forgotten when he moved from London to Crete in 1960. An exhibition at Pallant House Gallery gives artist John Craxton his due but, writes Alastair Smart, was he forgotten for not suffering enough for his art?

Sunday 03 December 2023 06:30 GMT
John Craxton, ‘Pastoral for PW’, 1948
John Craxton, ‘Pastoral for PW’, 1948 (Estate of John Craxton)

The centenary of John Craxton’s birth, in 2022, wasn’t marked by a single exhibition of note in his native land. If this seems unjust, it was also in keeping with the London-born artist’s reputation from the moment he settled in Crete in 1960. Thereafter, he was to a large extent ignored by the powers-that-be in the British art scene.    

Partly, this was a simple case of “out of sight, out of mind”. Craxton had had a successful start to his career, but in the late 1960s was dropped by his London dealers, Leicester Galleries. Not that the artist – who was living his best life, knocking back ouzo and basking in Greek sunlight – seemed to mind. Yes, he continued to work, but it was very much at his own speed. “I work best in an atmosphere where life is considered more important than art,” he said.

Craxton died in 2009, aged 87. His friend Ian Collins published a fine biography called John Craxton: A Life of Gifts two years ago, and has followed that up by curating the biggest exhibition of the artist’s work in decades, which recently opened at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Visitors can now make up their own minds about Craxton’s standing in the pantheon of British artists. The sale of the painting, Summer Triptych, for £343,000 at Bonhams this summer – the highest price ever paid for a work by Craxton at auction – suggests that his reputation may be on the up.

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