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From Stillness to Movement: John Craxton in the Jerwood Collection
[ Artist in Focus, Artwork in Focus )
Lara Wardle, explores two works by John Craxton currently on loan from the Jerwood Collection and on display in our exhibition, John Craxton: A Modern Odyssey.
Two contrasting works by John Craxton RA (1922-2009) are on loan from Jerwood Collection to the current exhibition John Craxton: A Modern Odyssey: Still Life with Decanter I, 1942; and The Dancer, 1951. The highly detailed early Still Life with Decanter I, was painted by Craxton when he was 20 years old and working in a shared London flat with Lucian Freud OM CH (1922-2011). The Dancer, a loosely painted monochrome oil, was painted 9 years later, at a time when Craxton had started to travel to Greece annually.
John Craxton Still Life with Decanter I 1942, pen, black ink, watercolour and gouache on paper. Jerwood Collection.
Still Life with Decanter I is hung in the first room of the current exhibition, next to Pallant House’s well-known 1944-1946 oil Hare on a Table. The two works share a similar crispness in their depiction of still life subject matter, which is presented on a tabletop that appears to lean towards the viewer. Both paintings use comparable compositional devices to draw the viewer’s eye in, such as the diagonal lines (created by the ears and legs of the hare in Pallant’s work, and the knife and baguette in Jerwood’s); and connection to the edge of the composition (the table legs and cloth in Jerwood’s, and hare’s ears and feet, and table support in Pallant’s).
John Craxton Hare on a Table 1944-1946, oil on board. Pallant House Gallery.
Although in later life Craxton and Freud dramatically and publicly fell out, when they were working alongside each other in London from 1942 to 1944, their work shared a confident clarity. In a Modern Painters article (published in 1992) Craxton is quoted as saying, ‘We [Freud and I] did life drawing at Goldsmith’s College, and we both decided – I suppose it was due to Picasso – that we were both going to put one line down. The common way to draw was to stroke the side of the nude with about 25 lines, and your eye picked out the one that was the right one. We thought that was a cop-out. Our shading was done with dots, and of course, we got lots of remarks like “How’s the measles”.
Craxton’s style naturally changed and developed throughout his life, however his work continued to convey a feeling of intense observation, which is demonstrated in his detailed depictions of chosen subject matter. Although inanimate objects and still lifes appear less as the focus in Craxton’s later works and are included in relation to the people that populate the paintings, Craxton painted them with an equal weighting. This can be seen in Craxton’s late large canvas Still Life with Sailors 1980-85, which is on display in the final room of Pallant’s exhibition.
John Craxton Still Life with Three Sailors 1980-85, tempera on canvas. Private collection.
The order of the title perhaps indicates Craxton’s continued interest in depicting a tabletop still life. The table in this painting shares a similar vertiginous quality to the earlier works as it appears to tip towards the viewer. The viewer’s eye is drawn into and around the painting and is directed purposely towards the plates of food by the middle sailor’s arm and pointed finger which stretches across the table to reach for a chip.
There is a sense of relaxed enjoyment and focus on the food and drink that the three sailors are consuming. This is conveyed in the painting partly through the attention that Craxton has given to the different plates laid out. It is impossible to look at this painting and not know that Craxton took great pleasure in Mediterranean food. In Sir David Attenborough’s address that he gave at Craxton’s memorial service he said, ‘He [Craxton] loved food – particularly eccentric, unusual food. One of the great pleasures in life was to be taken by John to his favourite harbour-side restaurant in Chania and be given a dish of boiled sea-creatures which even I, who am supposed to have some knowledge of the animal kingdom, found hard to identify’.
Detail from Still Life with Three Sailors
Craxton first travelled to Greece in 1946 and began annual visits to Crete the following year. Still Life with Sailors is typical of Craxton’s later work when the people and places he observed in Greece informed much of his subject matter.
Jerwood Collection’s The Dancer was painted just 5 years after Craxton had first visited Greece and was based on a Greek dancer, perhaps performing in a local taverna. This painting exudes confidence but in a different way to Still Life with Decanter I. Painted in a muted palette of greys and blacks, it was created at a time when Craxton was designing sets and costumes inspired by contemporary life in Greece for Frederick Ashton’s Covent Garden ballet Daphnis and Chloë. The music was by Ravel and Michael Somes and Margot Fonteyn danced the lead roles. The frieze-like quality in Craxton’s oil, conveyed through the flattened perspective, was inspired by a figure on a gravestone, which he had seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
John Craxton The Dancer, 1951, oil on canvas. Jerwood Collection.
The dancer appears almost restricted as his body is crouched down, with knees bent and elbows and head touching the edge of the canvas. Even in this uncomfortable position however, Craxton has conveyed a sense of relaxed movement: the dancer is still managing to hold a cigarette between his outstretched first finger and middle finger. Although Craxton has painted the work with broad brushstrokes and the dancer’s body is conveyed through the dark outline, there is a delicacy suggested, partly in the figure’s left hand with the almost touching thumb and first finger and in his relaxed facial expression, with closed eyes and gently parted lips.
There is more than a nod to Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) suggested in The Dancer. This is demonstrated in the incorporation of elements of Cubism: most noticeable in the way that Craxton has painted the dancer’s face; the flattened perspective; use of dark outlines to describe the subject matter; as well as the monochrome palette. Craxton met Picasso after the Second World War and was familiar with the older artist’s powerful painting Guernica (1937), which Craxton had seen when he first visited the Paris World Exposition at the age of 14.
John Craxton Dancing Man, 1954, oil on board. John Craxton Estate.
Male dancing figures are a dominant theme in Craxton’s work. Dancing Man, 1954, included in Pallant’s exhibition and painted on a similar scale to The Dancer, shares the same muted palette and depicts a single male figure, again with his eyes closed and seemingly immersed within music and his own movement. Both these works convey a sense of a movement caught in time and the dancers seem lost within the music that they are dancing to. Craxton had a life-long love of music and had grown up in a musical household: his father Harold Craxton was a pianist and professor at the Royal Academy of Music.
The Dancer and Still Life with Decanter I are very different works; however, both demonstrate Craxton’s continued interest in acutely observed depiction of the subjects that he chose to paint. Craxton’s work matured and changed through his life, however he never lost the graphic and linear qualities that is most apparent in his early pieces and his stated conviction to ‘put one line down’.
You can see the works described in our current exhibition, John Craxton: A Modern Odyssey until April 21 2024.