A painter’s paradise: the life of John Craxton

The artist John Craxton had a close relationship with archaeology. It began in his early years in England, where he encountered excavations of Roman mosaics, medieval churches, and an idiosyncratic museum. But, above all, it was the art of Greece that he longed for, as Ian Collins explains.


Born into a cultured and well-connected bohemian family in London, the painter John Craxton (1922-2009) yearned from a very early age to live and work in Greece. He achieved his goal, and enduring joy coloured his ensuing pictures – radiant images of a world where myth survived in everyday existence.

In a rented St John’s Wood villa, the Craxton parents ran an open house for the cash-strapped and musically gifted. Space was tight and household budgets always close to breaking, so their six children – John being the fourth of five sons before a desired daughter – were packed off to schools of very mixed quality. When these outposts failed, the siblings were palmed off on relatives and family friends.

John was sent to stay with a godmother on a Lincolnshire farm beside Ermine Street, the Roman road linking London and York. In rare breaks from painting and drawing, he scoured the field edges and found glimpses of antiquity: red-glazed Samian ware pottery and coins bearing the head of Constantine the Great. To encourage this interest in the ancient past, his mother took him to meet Mortimer Wheeler, the director of the London Museum, where her husband and lodgers gave concerts. Wheeler was already famous as a mercurial man of action due to brilliance in the fields of museology, archaeology, and also publicity. In 1930, he and his wife Tessa had begun a dig at the Roman city of Verulamium, in a valley below St Albans, and they swiftly made headlines by uncovering a mosaic pavement with a scallop-shell design. The following July, John was taking the bus each day to help clean mosaics and experience the thrill of discovery. He was eight; the Wheelers’ son, Michael, had been assisting from the age of five.

IMAGE: private collection.

John Craxton was always an adventurer, exploiting wonderful chances through charm, curiosity, intelligence, and courage akin to recklessness. He had a genius for being in the right place at the right time. Leaving school with no qualifications, he went to live with an uncle and aunt, painters both, in the wilds of Dorset. Far from landing in the middle of a lovely nowhere, he was a mile’s walk from the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Farnham – and this became his university.

In the last decades of the 19th century, Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt-Rivers had formed two vast and idiosyncratic collections: the first can still be seen in its own museum in Oxford; the other arose like a mirage on Cranborne Chase, then was scattered in the 1960s. Inspired by Charles Darwin’s concept of biological evolution, Pitt-Rivers amassed artefacts from prehistory to recent times to demonstrate evolving material culture. The result was an Aladdin’s cave of archaeological, ethnographical, social, and art-historical finds – local and global – presented in eclectic profusion. John was blind to the founder’s theories. But, as sunlight streamed on to treasures in dusty display cabinets, he learned that precious things should be part of ordinary life and not shrouded by reverence.

Amid the diverse glories of human creativity, he felt most affinity with art from ancient Greece: elongated female figures carved in marble in the Cycladic islands four or five millennia ago; pottery with spiralling patterns from the Minoan civilisation of Crete around 2000 BC; Fayum panel portraits from Roman-era Egypt, when prevailing artistic culture in the eastern Mediterranean remained redolently Greek. The last of these – intimate, full-faced likenesses showing people in the prime of life and masking the faces of the mummified dead – had a profound effect on John Craxton’s art. From now on, he dreamed of the Mediterranean and longed most especially for Greece.

John Craxton, Self-portrait. Oil on paper, 1946-1947. Size: 32.3cm x 23.2cm IMAGE: private collection.

In rural Dorset, John had the freedom to explore a secret world of art, nature, history, and legend, where archaeological remains and folk memory reached depths of Greek richness, uniting past and present, fact and fiction, and firing a creative imagination. As he wrote,

The Dorset landscape is not an obvious physiognomy but, like a person, has many hidden aspects – the mysterious enigmatic earthworks, tumuli and barrows, the atmosphere of conspiracy from the great days of smuggling still lingers, the deep, impenetrable forests with King John’s hunting lodge to prove that time is ever relative.

This amalgam of ancient and modern would become a key component in Craxton’s art, which found patrons and initial public acclaim when the artist was just 19. But in the meantime there was a great deal of looking – and living. For joyful experience was also to be part of the picture.

No art student in Britain at that time was allowed to glimpse nude models before the age of 17. So at 16, in the spring of 1939, the precocious teenager went via parental contacts to life classes in Paris. Furious when his dream of a southward and sunward drift was broken by the looming Second World War, John was forced back to a besieged island. His art was unleashed during nearly seven years of lockdown.

Returning to Dorset, he warred with his uncle and aunt over a friendship with Trelawney Dayrell Reed. This flamboyant former Pitt-Rivers Museum curator introduced his protégé to a fascinating assembly of personalities, including Alexander Keiller, the Dundee marmalade millionaire who lived at Avebury Manor, close to the stone circle, whose study he financed. Craxton and Reed joined a stream of visitors to Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations at Maiden Castle, near Dorchester – the biggest Iron Age hillfort in Britain. All were drawn by newspaper reports of a battle of Britain from antiquity. The headline Wheeler discovery was a cemetery supposed to reveal the slaughter of Celtic defenders by Vespasian’s forces, years after the AD 43 Roman invasion. It made for an overly vivid 1943 monograph, published a year before the D-Day Landings, that coincided with Reed’s own swashbuckling book The Battle for Britain in the Fifth Century: an essay in Dark Age history.

LEFT Fayum portrait of a young man from Hawara, Egypt. Encaustic wax on wood panel, c.100 AD. Size: 40.3cm x 17.6cm
Fayum portrait of a young man from Hawara, Egypt. Encaustic wax on wood panel, c.100 AD. Size: 40.3cm x 17.6cm
John Craxton, Pots from Crichel Down, Dorset. Oil on board, 1940-1941. Size: 24.5cm x 34.5cm. IMAGE: private collection.

John also lodged with the archaeologists Stuart and Peggy Piggott. Through them, he met the British Museum curator and future director T D Kendrick, whose interests ranged from Anglo-Saxon art to Victorian stained glass. Injured in the First World War, Tom Kendrick limped on long hikes to country churches where John incorporated charcoal rubbings of medieval brass memorials into evocative, time-bending compositions.

In the acclaimed wartime art of John Craxton, the general conflict was to be camouflaged in dark and deeply personal symbolism. Lonely figures in menaced landscapes, stranded tree roots in estuaries, and old cottages in idyllic isolation suddenly vulnerable to bombing were all emblematic images of the artist and his threatened existence. While staying with the Piggotts, he produced his first major painting: Pots from Crichel Down, Dorset, 1940-1941. The Neolithic pots were collected by the Piggotts from the rolling landscape in the background. This picture was a very subtle protest, for the archaeological site was being used by the RAF for bombing practice.

Back in London, John painted and partied through the Blitz thanks to Peter Watson. This co-founder and funder of Horizon magazine led him to pictures and people. Earlier artists Samuel Palmer and William Blake became his wartime gods, Graham Sutherland and John Piper his guides and frequent companions, and close contemporary Lucian Freud his brother in art.

John Craxton, Landscape with Poet and Birdcatcher. Ink, watercolour, and gouache on board, 1942. Size: 51cm x 76cm. IMAGE: private collection.

In the Freuds’ Hampstead house, which already had the air of a museum and shrine to Lucian’s late grandfather Sigmund, they took turns to lie on the famous couch of the founder of psychoanalysis, while also admiring a surrounding array of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman figures. Flunking army medicals – John suffered from undiagnosed tuberculosis and was in need of a hot dry climate more than he ever knew – the two tearaways roamed to Dorset, Cambridgeshire, and Pembrokeshire. John cast them as explorers of ruins in his 1942 painting Landscape with Poet and Birdcatcher. Great art, he always maintained, must retain an air of mystery.

He followed John Piper in depicting Knowlton Church at Cranborne. The site ‘could have been a set for an M R James ghost story, and had me in awe from the first – a [Norman] ruin in the middle of a double prehistoric earthwork, the pagan temple and the Christian church each crumbling away back to earth. It was, for years, guarded by thick brambles and elder trees, a magical place now alas sterilised and stripped of ivy, its mystery gone.’

But he never lost his longing to be abroad. As he wrote in a letter from the Fens to his friend E Q Nicholson in the spring of 1944, ‘The willow trees are nice & amazing here but I would prefer an olive tree growing out of a Greek ruin.’ It was to be another two years before the nomad’s wish was finally granted, when, aged 23, he flew away from the opening of a solo show in Zurich. Charming the wife of the British Ambassador to Athens at the opening dinner, he hitched a lift in her borrowed bomber.

John Craxton, Knowlton Church. Pen and ink, 1941. Size: 35cm x 45.5cm IMAGE: private collection.

Lucian followed for five months, but John Craxton never looked back. He spent the next 14 years island-hopping while based on Poros and Hydra. He kicked off with a winter cruise of the Cyclades as the guest of a naval patrol. On the island of Ios, he met shepherd Angelos Koutsoupis, who was now busy carving out a new line in ancient-inspired sculpture. Two fine bas-reliefs ready for the tomb of his wife and himself on display in a workshop demonstrated his special skill. Koutsoupis explained to him that an Athenian antiquities dealer had lately sent photos of a seated Cycladic harpist in the National Archaeological Museum for him to replicate. The carving, from a grave on the island of Keros dating to 2800 BC, had lost its lower arms and hands, so the shepherd-sculptor added them in his own manner. He had then aged his handiwork in a stream for six months. When convincingly encrusted in limescale, the copy had gone to the Athens dealer who, as Koutsoupis told Craxton, had sold it on to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Eventually, decades later, John shared this anecdote with The Sunday Times.

Craxton paid a first and decisive visit to Crete in 1947, returning annually until he settled in a Venetian house on Chania’s harbour in 1960. He spent a first night camping in the Nazi-ransacked Villa Ariadne of Sir Arthur Evans at Knossos. For John Craxton, the point of Knossos was its humanism. He felt that the position near the sea, on a fertile plain and at a confluence of two streams, was chosen for economic reasons but also for scenic beauty. Europe’s oldest civilisation had introduced an airy architecture of colonnades and courtyards, whose grace note was a pattern of large rooms divided and subdivided by walls or doors – for flexibility and ventilation, and for enjoyment of the view. Such openness was all the more remarkable since the site was undefended. He came to believe that Knossos was the temple to a goddess and that Minoan fresco painters were female. ‘I think it was run by women but guarded by men – having something of the arrangement of a beehive, with a queen bee at the centre,’ he said.

As well as seeking out the Minoan palace, he had gone in search of a dancing sailor who was the star turn in the bars of Poros before he returned to his life as a butcher in Herakleion market. That first evening on Crete, they met up in a taverna next to Knossos, where – in between feasting, drinking, and firing his gun into the night sky – the demobbed Cretan danced the zeibekiko. Clicking thumbs and fingers, and with carefully controlled steps, he circled an upturned chair. Then, with a firm upward thrust, he grabbed the top two legs and somersaulted backwards over the chair to land on his feet and continue dancing. At a later date, when poring over Knossos material in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, Craxton experienced a shock of recognition. A Minoan gold seal-ring decorated with a bull-leaping scene – still on display in the museum – bore an ‘amazing and uncanny’ likeness to the butcher’s dance with the upturned chair that he had by this point recorded in a painting. Now he knew that he had witnessed a folk survival over four millennia.

John Craxton, An Acrobatic Cretan Butcher. Oil on canvas, 1947. Size: 66cm x 91cm. IMAGE: private collection.
BELOW Minoan seal ring from Archanes, Crete. Gold, c.1400-1375 BC. Size: 2.3cm x 3.5cm x 2.2cm
Minoan seal ring from Archanes, Crete. Gold, c.1400-1375 BC. Size: 2.3cm x 3.5cm x 2.2cm. IMAGE: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Through many scrapes the artist still held on to his heroic hedonism. His love of sailors was mistaken for interest in military intelligence; his love of antiquities – as well as of Cretan painted churches, and his successful campaign to save the Venetian harbour at Chania – brought more suspicion. His wicked wit rebounded lethally. As one friend put it, ‘Johnny had to leave Greece when his jokes ran away with him.’

During an early search of Craxton’s house for illegally held antiquities (which he denied having, and none were found), officials mistook a bird fashioned from beachcombed brick and tile fragments for an ancient Athenian owl. Picking up the Picasso pastiche and then pulling it apart, its actual maker said in all-too-fluent Greek: ‘This bird is made of brick, just like this…’. And then he tapped a policeman’s head with the baked torso of the bird. That officer, promoted when the Colonels seized power in Athens in 1967, forced his tormentor’s speedy eviction. It was nearly a decade before the supremely Philhellenic artist was able to return.

Getting back to his adopted homeland was the greatest gift of John Craxton’s immensely fortunate life. Mingling passions for mythology, archaeology, history, and next-to-nature existence – and a love of people most of all – his art reached a final flowering on a journey from monochrome to colour and from darkness into light. He was profoundly influenced by antiquities, Byzantine mosaics, the paintings of El Greco, and Cubism reworked for the rocky geometry of the Greek landscape. One stand-out painting from the 1980s, in which a girl looks out from her window to watch a boy and stallion, is derived from a headstone in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The Blue Horse was the culmination of equine studies previously based on horses and riders on the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum.

John Craxton, The Blue Horse. Tempera on canvas, 1985. Size: 64cm x 81cm. IMAGE: private collection.

But there are always hidden layers to Craxton’s scenes of contemporary life. A pair of monumental 1984 Voskos (Shepherd) portraits shows the ongoing Cretan motif of men grappling with goats but also refers back to a depiction of wild-bull capture on a Minoan gold cup from a Spartan royal tomb at Vaphio. And, in a picture of apotheosis for the painter, a sailor sleeps off a merry lunch in a field of blooming asphodels. These were the same flowers that, in mythology, garlanded Persephone when she returned from the underworld each year to bring an end to winter. The artist knew that the Asphodel Meadows of ancient Greek eternity were reserved neither for villains nor heroes but for ordinary flawed humanity – the company he loved to keep.

This was his idea of paradise, and it was the reality he found and painted in Greece.

Further reading:
John Craxton: a life of gifts by Ian Collins is published by Yale University Press at £25 (ISBN 978-0300255294). You can hear more from Ian Collins about John Craxton on this episode of the PastCast.
ALL CRAXTON IMAGES: © John Craxton Estate. All rights reserved DACS