‘John Craxton’ by Ian Collins

Farnham, 2011, £35, ISBN 978-1-84822-069-0

This sumptuous book by John Craxton’s friend, Ian Collins, does great credit to both of them. Craxton was not always an easy person to engage with in the case of art critics and I think he would have approved of the approach taken here. The author has somehow assembled an extremely fine set of photographs spanning the whole of the artist’s long and artistically fertile life. He has accompanied these photographs by a minimal text, not seeking to analyse the works in the way Craxton may well not have liked; but also not indulging in the sort of thoughtless praise which some writers choose to bestow upon their favourites. This means that there are at least two other types of book about Craxton which remain to be written, if anyone fancies the challenge: a full biography and a proper analysis of his art historical importance.

Craxton’s life as an artist of note began very early, in his late teenage years. He had the great good fortune to be taken up – and, in the best sense of the word, patronised – by Peter Watson. Watson was, in the English art world of say 1940-1956, an extremely important man to know if a young artist wanted to progress. He was rich, well-connected and stunningly generous to the artists and writers whom he favoured. There is a long list of such people. Amongst the British artists he supported in various ways, and whose work he bought, one would include Freud, Craxton, Colquhoun, Macbryde and Vaughan. He also bought the work of Bacon and Sutherland. When the artists visited his flat in London in the striking modern block of flats at 10 Palace Gate, designed by Wells Coates, they would also have found work by foreign artists such as Picasso, de Chirico and Dali and so on. If they visited him at 44 Rue du Bac in Paris before the War, they would have seen pictures by Klee, Picasso, Ernst and so on, many of which the Germans were to seize in 1940 and destroy. Visitors would also have been able to read his collection of artistic and literary books and magazines and, crucially, to meet other artists and members of the cultured world. From the end of 1939 onwards the journal, Horizon, was funded by Watson and edited by Cyril Connolly (and, for a while, by Stephen Spender). Watson generated the regular pieces on art which appeared in Horizon over its 10 year life and his young artist friends, including Craxton, were to benefit. In Craxton’s case the only previous book on his work – little more than a large pamphlet – was Geoffrey Grigson’s work of 1948, published by Horizon, but commissioned and paid for by Watson himself.

So Craxton had in some ways the sort of start which any aspiring artist would have been excited by. During the War years he really was, at a very young age (he was born in 1922) one of the most successful and talked about new artists in the country. But then the release of travel restrictions at the end of the War enabled him to start travelling. The extent of these travels was astonishing, as can be seen from the chronology in the Whitechapel catalogue of his Retrospective of 1967. He went everywhere, repeatedly, but above all to Greece.

And so his work, and his ‘career’ as an artist, took a different turn. In Greece, where he gradually spent more time, acquiring a flat in Crete, the sunlight had something of the effect on his work as did the sun of Southern France on the work of Graham Sutherland: it brightened and changed the palate. Greece also changed the subject-matter. Although shepherds remained a constant theme from the English work, there arrived many non-English goats and sailors and thorny bushes (another parallel with Sutherland). Moreover, especially in the later work, a sort of Byzantine patterning influence was apparent, as was the work of a Greek artist whose wider reputation has now vanished – Nicolas Ghika – but who was influential on Craxton at a certain time.

The end result of all this travelling and change of style was that Craxton’s status in the art world of London changed and weakened. One suspects he became rather overlooked by many dealers, curators and buyers. Until, that is, quite recently. Now his work is getting the saleroom recognition that it deserves and his prices are steadily rising. The publication of this glorious book will reinforce that progress. Ian Collins is to be praised and thanked for producing this book in this way. In the case of Craxton, an artist whose name had rather fallen from where one might have expected to find it, the first task is to remind the English art world of the breadth and depth of his achievements. More detailed attention can follow, but now we can all see why greater attention to this fine artist will be richly deserved.