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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Landscape painting of three male sailors sat at a table laden with dishes and plates of foods. They all wear white trousers and shirts with a blue tabard.

8 Things You Need to Know About John Craxton

[ Artist in Focus )

Explore the fascinating life and art of John Craxton, a British artist who dared to be different. Our exhibition, John Craxton: A Modern Odyssey will delve into his life, how his art changed, the friends he met, such as Lucian Freud, and his deep connection to the sun-soaked Mediterranean. From his defiant expressions of his sexuality to his years of exile and triumphant return, John Craxton’s journey through art is an example of the power of creativity and resilience.

Here are 8 things you need to know about this groundbreaking artist:


1) John Craxton was a British artist born in London in 1922.

His childhood was spent in his liberal family home in St John’s Wood with his five siblings and at various private schools. Craxton did not get on well at school and left as soon as he could. He wanted to pursue his passion for art and experience what the world had to offer.

Portrait of a man from the shoulders up wearing an open white shirt and with short brown hair. He looks to right.

John Craxton [1922–2009), Self-Portrait, 1946–7, Oil on Paper, Ömer Koç Collection. © estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2023.


2) Craxton began his art training in Paris.

He first visited Paris in 1937 and saw Pablo Picasso’s newly painted, Guernica. In 1939 after being considered too young to study nude life drawing at Chelsea School of Art, he returned to Paris. There he attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière until the outbreak of war forced him to return to London, where he continued his studies.


3) In 1941 he met collector Peter Watson, who became his first patron.

Watson was the wealthy co-founder of Horizon magazine. He introduced Craxton to the young Lucian Freud and set them up in neighbouring studios in blitzed London. They became close friends throughout their twenties, both working on new and subversive art.

Fisherman carrying lobster and net

John Craxton, Greek Fisherman, 1946, Oil on board, © Estate of John Craxton

John Craxton, Greek Fisherman, 1946, Oil on board, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (On Loan from a Private Collection, 2013) © Estate of John Craxton


4) In 1946, Craxton travelled to Greece for the first time.

Freud travels the country with him and in 1947 he visits Crete. He was immediately captivated by the island’s beauty and its rich culture. Craxton would return to the island many times and lived his life between a Venetian house in Chania, Crete and London.


5) Craxton’s paintings of Crete are full of colour and light.

Craxton is best known for his paintings and drawings of Greek life, especially the many paintings of sailors, fishermen and goat herders he met and befriended. His work is inspired by ancient Greek history and mythology and are full of the colour and life of the sun-drenched Mediterranean islands.

Cover for ‘A Time of Gifts’ showing a mountainous valley with a church tower to left and a house to right with a man carrying a backpack leaning against a tree in front of the house. The sun is shining over the scene.

John Craxton [1922–2009), Still Life Sailors, 1980-85, Tempera on canvas, Private Collection. © estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2023.


6) John Craxton illustrated several books.

He created striking lithographs, etchings, and woodcuts for several books by Patrick Leigh Fermor, including Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece and The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis (translated and introduced by Fermor). He also created lithographs for Visionary Poems and Passages or The Poet’s Eye selected by Geoffrey Grigson.


7) Craxton was forced to leave Greece for almost a decade.

A coup in Greece in 1967 forced Craxton to leave his beloved Venetian home in Chania. Due to his interest in sailors, he was accused of spying and his love of antiques brought a suspicion of looting. He could not return to the island until 1976, when he created some of his brightest and most joyful works.

Landscape painting of three male sailors sat at a table laden with dishes and plates of foods. They all wear white trousers and shirts with a blue tabard.


8) Craxton expressed his sexuality through his art.

John Craxton was a gay man and was one of the first British artists to openly depict homosexuality in his work. His work was his activism and when homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK in 1967, Craxton sent the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, a painting. However, being openly gay during this time was not socially accepted and friend and fellow artist Cy Twombly suggested this was one reason Craxton was not better known.

John Craxton was a complex and fascinating artist. His work is full of colour, light, and movement. His legacy reminds us that art knows no boundaries, and life is a canvas for boundless creativity and resilience.

Come and find out more in our current exhibition John Craxton: A Modern Odyssey from 28 October 2023 until 21 April 2024.

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