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.
John Craxton: A Romantic Spirit
[ Artist Interview )
In 2007, our director Simon Martin met John Craxton RA (1922-2009) in his studio to discuss landscape in British art, his artistic influences and more.
I’d like to begin by asking you why you think there has been such a romantic preoccupation with landscape in British art?
What is so important in any country is ‘folk memory’. So many of us in Britain are interested in the landscape. Why? Because it was the land that our ancestors worshipped long before St Augustine turned up. People were worshipping trees and lakes, bogs, rocks, mountains, hills and groves – the sun, the moon and the seasons – that’s what they were interested in and quite naturally, because we live in that world.
In a way, this interest in landscape reflects that equally ‘British’ preoccupation with the weather… Absolutely! Light and lack of light. Light coming in through clouds and beams of light, moonlight, sunlight – we’re obsessed with it in this country, and quite rightly too, because it’s part of us.
Artists and poets in Northern Europe have always had a deep-rooted affinity with lakes, mountains, the evening, moon, sun, sunrise, whereas the Mediterranean artists are fundamentally interested in people. That’s a totally different thing from landscape because, in a way, you can identify yourself in a landscape – that’s what it’s all about – two things: imagination and naturalism. Not for nothing is Greece the home of metamorphosis.
Our 2007 exhibition Poets in the Landscape: The Romantic Spirit in British Art features one of your early works of a young poet in a dark, dramatic landscape which epitomises the central theme of the exhibition. Did you identify the figure in landscape with yourself?
Yes, in a way, I did. I had been rejected from serving in the army because of pleurisy, so it represents the total calm of the seated figure while the wildness of the war goes on all around. I was also obsessed by William Blake at that time and had taken a copy of Blake’s poetry with me to the army medical examination.
The painting was a combination of different things: the plants were onions that had gone to seed and I used to draw fallen trees in Dorset, while the plant was based on one I had on my window sill in St John’s Wood. It was the first landscape in which I had included a figure. Poet in Landscape was the result of my having seen a print of Samuel Palmer’s Valley Thick with Corn.
Yes, I can see there is a clear connection between your early work and the pastoral sepia drawings of Samuel Palmer. Was that your first encounter with Palmer’s work?
Yes. Peter Watson, the proprietor of Horizon magazine, had shown me proofs of an article by Geoffrey Grigson [Horizon V, 1941] which included that drawing. Palmer’s work gave me the courage to put a figure in the landscape. Later I bought three Palmer etchings for 7/6d each from a saleroom in Lisson Grove.
And clearly William Blake was also an important influence for your work.
I had a complete infatuation with Blake. I went to do some work in Oxford painting a fireplace decoration for Lord David Cecil. It was November 1941 and I was very cold and miserable. I made friends with Neville Coghill, the Chaucerian scholar, and he gave me a copy of Blake’s collected writings: I felt it kept me going. I love Blake, not only his poetry, but also his attitude to life as an artist. He was an anarchist in a way: against the 18th century ‘grand manner’. He was an original, it comes out in everything he wrote and painted. He was a great, great genius and a master of the imagination.
Didn’t you also own an original Blake colour print?
Yes. I was wandering around in a bookshop called Francis Edwards in Marylebone High Street in 1942 and I came across a Blake – Satan exulting over Eve – lying on the floor. It was £15, which I couldn’t afford, but then I sold my first oil painting at the Leicester Galleries for 15 guineas. The only other person in London who knew about that print was Ruthven Todd, a great friend of mine who knew all about Blake and Samuel Palmer, but he already owed the bookshop so much money that he daren’t ask to buy it…
In 1944 you collaborated with the poet Geoffrey Grigson on a poetry anthology entitled ‘The Poet’s Eye’. How did this come about?
Sheila Shannon and W. J. Turner, the editors of the series ‘New Excursions into English Poetry’, came to my exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1944 and I think it was there that they plotted the idea of doing a book about the poet’s vision. I think ‘Moments of Vision’ was one of the titles, but it changed to ‘The Poet’s Eye’. They got Grigson to select the poems, and he gave a whole batch of them to me and said, “These are the poems; choose what you want out of them.”
So I chose from his selection but I also insisted on the inclusion of a small poem by Samuel Palmer about Shoreham. Cowells, the printers in Ipswich, allowed me to work directly on the plates and to experiment with new techniques. And Sheila Shannon and W.J. Turner backed me up all the time in the most wonderful way, giving me incredible freedom. They never turned a hair about the eccentricities of what I was doing.
You describe the drawings in that anthology as ‘decorations’ rather than illustrations…
Absolutely, only one drawing was actually related to a poem, which was the one by W. H. Auden. I was also interested in the reference to cuttlefish in Tennyson’s poem because it reminded me of my childhood at Selsey Bill when I used to find cuttlefish on the beach. The cuttlefish became a sort of visual pun, its ink making it possible to write poetry and to draw. I like jokes like that.
Some of the images seem suggestive of the Pembrokeshire landscape, where you went in 1943 with Peter Watson and Graham and Kathleen Sutherland.
Yes, Peter Watson took me to stay with Kathy and Graham Sutherland in a farmhouse on St David’s Head, surrounded by a wonderful prehistoric landscape. One of the things Sutherland taught me was how to invent. When we were in Pembrokeshire he showed me the place where he got the idea for his painting Entrance to a Lane which I knew very well from Peter Watson’s flat.
I said, “But there are no trees overhanging it!” Sutherland said, “Yes, I know. I took them from somewhere else.” He was wonderful in that he told me “You must invent”. It was a very good lesson for me, because it was very much like what Picasso was doing. He was also taking natural forms and reinventing them.
Peter Watson was a remarkable patron and collector, funding Horizon magazine and later co-founding the I.C.A. with Peter Gregory, Roland Penrose and Herbert Read. He seems to have been an important influence on your artistic development.
Peter Watson was rich, and he had been in Paris where he had known many painters. He was steeped in the best paintings of the Thirties. He collected Picassos – marvellous Picassos – and Roualts, Dalís, Mirós, de Chiricos and Klees. When the war started, he came to London and bought Sutherland, Piper, Moore, Frances Hodgkins and Christopher Wood. He was hugely intelligent about music. I met him at a concert of the Schostakovich 5th Symphony in the Queen’s Hall. My friend James Iliff offered me his ticket as he couldn’t go. After the concert we walked down Regent Street to a café where David Gascoyne was sitting in the corner; the first poet I ever met.
Peter was an all-round connoisseur. He was also wonderfully generous with his money, particularly with painters, writers and poets. He supported Dylan Thomas, David Gascoyne, Lucian Freud, Colquhoun and MacBryde and he gave them handouts – five quid, ten quid a time, and that was a small fortune in 1941-42. You could live on £2.10s a week then, and £5 was just magical. He took you out for dinner in Soho – he took everybody out to dinner – and you’d say “thank you” and he’d turn around and say “Thank you, thank you!”.
Was this when you were sharing premises with Lucian Freud?
Yes, thank God you said ‘premises’, as Lucian and I were not sharing a studio. People get it all wrong about that. Peter Watson telephoned me saying he’d been reading Miró’s article called ‘Je rêve d’un grand atelier’ in Minotaur or Cahier’s d’Art. He asked if I would like a studio, and at the time I was working in a narrow room with just space for a bed – this was 1942. He said, “Find yourself somewhere to work and send me the bill”, so I found an upstairs maisonette in a Nash-style terrace in St John’s Wood.
Lucian very quickly joined me, using the top floor as a studio. We lived and painted happily there for two years. We were inseparable at that point, like brothers. He was very unlike me and that’s why we got on so well, because there was no clashing of styles. We learnt a lot from each other. I learnt from Lucian how to scrutinise, which I wasn’t doing before, and Lucian learnt how to plan pictures and use colour.
We were packed off to the Goldsmiths’ College by Peter Watson. Peter was worried about Lucian not being able to draw. Peter said “Lucian must learn how to draw a hand before he distorts one”. It was Graham Sutherland who recommended Goldsmiths because he’d studied there himself. His friend Clive Gardiner was the principal.
You have said before that you are uncomfortable with the label ‘Neo-Romanticism’ which critics sometimes use to describe your work. Why is that?
Because you are either ‘Romantic’ in spirit or you are not. You can’t be ‘Neo-Romantic’. There was never a ‘Neo-Romantic’ group as such. In fact, myself, Lucian, Graham Sutherland and the others were only a group in as much as the critics decided to make us one – I find it presumptuous of them in the extreme.
Let’s face it, the Ancients were a group around Palmer in Shoreham, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group, there was the Bloomsbury Group and the Euston Road group, but we were simply not a group. There were two groups during the war: the artists around John Lehmann and Penguin New Writing such as Michael Ayrton, John Minton and Keith Vaughan, and then on the other side, with Peter Watson and Horizon, there was Lucian and myself, Sutherland, Colquhoun and MacBryde. When you’re 19 or 20, and somebody is five or ten years older, they have their friends and you have yours. Minton and Ayrton were not my age. You can know somebody a lot older, for example I was friends with Piper and Sutherland, but when somebody is only slightly older it’s like being at school. You have your age group and that’s the way it works.
This interview first appeared in Pallant House Gallery Magazine No. 11 in 2007.
Lead image: Anne-Katrin Purkiss, John Craxton, with a portrait of the artist as a young man by Ghika (c.1948)