This week: John Craxton

John Craxton, An Acrobatic Cretan Butcher. Oil on canvas, 1947. Size: 66cm x 91cm. IMAGE: private collection.
John Craxton, An Acrobatic Cretan Butcher. Oil on canvas, 1947. Size: 66cm x 91cm. IMAGE: private collection.

These days, the English artist John Craxton (1922-2009) is perhaps best known for the vibrant, sun-drenched illustrations he produced as book jackets for his close friend and fellow philhellene, the travel writer and war hero Patrick Leigh Fermor.

As a young painter in the 1940s, however, he was a leading figure in the British art scene, alongside other friends and contemporaries such as Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Lucian Freud.

Craxton grew up as part of a large, bohemian family in London’s St John’s Wood, but yearned from an early age for the sparkling light and freedom of Greece, where he would eventually travel widely with Freud before settling more permanently on the island of Crete.

His affinity with the culture of his adopted country is evident in his paintings, which feature Arcadian themes and ancient Greek motifs that can be traced back over millennia. But as we discover this week on The Past, his love of the ancient world was formed well before he was able finally to leave England’s damp and chilly climate behind him.

In the new issue of Minerva magazine and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our brilliant podcast, Ian Collins explains how a precocious love of archaeology – including childhood visits to the now-defunct Pitt-Rivers Museum in Dorset and to Mortimer Wheeler’s headline-making dig at Verulamium, near St Albans – would have a profound influence on his art in decades to come.

Elsewhere this week, we’ve also been digging into the archives in search of a deeper understanding of Cretan culture: we separated fact from fiction on a visit to the labyrinth at Knossos; we travelled back in time to discover how earthquakes have tipped and rocked the island over the centuries; we looked in detail at an enigmatic fired-clay disc, dating to c. 1700-1600 BC, found in the palace at Phaistos; and we searched for signs of the ancient agricultural revolution driven by olives. Separately, we also travelled to the mainland in the footsteps of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, joining a tour through Greece to his home in the Mani Peninsula.

And finally, if all that just whets your appetite for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed quiz, which this week is also focused on the art and culture of Ancient Greece. Good luck, and Happy New Year from everyone at The Past!

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