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John Craxton - A Rebellious 20th Century Artist
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Art writer and curator Ian Collins explores the fascinating life of artist John Craxton.
John Craxton lived for pleasure and painted it too. Born in October 1922, this heroic hedonist was gladly gay and thus a criminal in Britain until his 45th year.
Nomadic and anarchic, he blithely ignored the rules by escaping into his own private world from the start. And then, as soon as could, he got away from these cold and constricted islands altogether.
Always longing for Greece, and furious to be held back by the little matter of World War Two, he finally landed in Athens in the spring of 1946. His senses were immediately and permanently seduced. He was 23 – and from that ecstatic moment almost every picture he drew or painted extolled Aegean life.
What luck to enjoy the liberal ethos of the Craxton family home in London – a St John’s Wood villa rented for a song from Marylebone Cricket Club. John’s well-connected but unwealthy parents ran an open house for the financially challenged and musically gifted; to save on beds and bills, and ever trustful, they happily sent their six children away.
John, the fourth of five sons before his parents got the daughter and the brilliant musician desired all along, ran merrily wild. Crashing out of formal education, he wanted only to paint and draw and to bask in his own adventures.
At 17 he was picking up antiques and being picked up by antiques dealers. Lodging largely in Dorset with an uncle and aunt, painters both, he scandalised his guardians (but not his parents) by taking up with Trelawney Dayrell Reed – painter, farmer and ousted curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Farnham.
When asked whether he had pigs on his farm, this Wildean wit notoriously replied: “No. The boys have the pigs. I have the boys.” Hence his Pitt Rivers sacking. The darkly bearded and often becloaked giant looked like a pantomime villain and relished the risks of playing such a part to the full.
How much of it was a comic act and how much the real thing was never clear – but Trelawney’s besotted letters to John suggest that, beneath the banter and bluster, he was really a guide to the antiquarian and archaeological fields they both loved.
The first of John Craxton’s queer champions led him to the second – archaeologist Stuart Piggott. And then came Peter Watson, co-founder and funder of Horizon magazine, who poured an inherited fortune into a collector’s passion for beautiful things and brilliant young men.
Saint Peter set up John Craxton and Lucian Freud in adjoining studios – priming the co-conspirators to work on their inventive and subversive art without hindrance and then to explode in rampages through blitzed London and beyond.
Meeting when aged 19, they would be best friends through their twenties. The heterosexually hyper-active Lucian – who told his biographer, “You couldn’t go out in the blackout without getting the clap” – was to make two drunken passes at his brother in arts. Both were rebuffed.
For all their intimacy, John felt he was being tested sexually and feared emotional blackmail. So there was probably no Freudian slip when Lucian said, amid their bitter estrangement several decades later: “I never knew Johnny was queer. Not for ages.”
Even for such a liberated figure, the voyage to Greece completed a journey to freedom. Having been spared wartime military service due to undiagnosed tuberculosis, he flourished in the sun.
He had many famous friends but peopled his pictures with fisher and herder families, and with conscripted sailors and soldiers who, at the drop of a plate, turned into taverna dancers. Here was the passionate and daredevil company he liked best, and especially since he learned their earthy and bawdy language.
Avoiding politics and shared campaigns, he wanted to speak for himself – and, while so garrulous in private, his art was his public statement. But when homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain in 1967, albeit within a severe definition of privacy, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins was given a painting.
Ironically, that year was the Craxton nadir. A Whitechapel Art Gallery retrospective was poorly received – one verdict decried pictures that “push hard against the handicap of happiness”; a general subtext sneered at a gay gadfly.
And then, just when he felt he was done with pinched little Britain forever, there was a coup in his adopted homeland. Fondness for young men in uniform had long been mistaken for interest in military intelligence; a lover of antiquities confused with a looter. Each dark rumour was met with Craxtonian mockery. Now an empowered police officer he had pilloried sent him packing.
It would be almost a decade before he could return in bliss to his crumbling Venetian house on the harbour at Chania. His pro-life pictures, empathetic to everyone, became bigger, bolder and brighter – more joyfully audacious.
Near the deep harbour of Souda Bay, Chania saw a fresh wave of sailors each evening and for a while it was one of the Mediterranean’s great gay cruising grounds. The writer Edmund White, staying for two summers, befriended John Craxton but fell out with Cy Twombly, another visitor to Crete, after revealing his sexuality in print. He says:
“That whole generation of very successful artists were closeted because that was the way to be rich and famous. If you came out your standing immediately plummeted. I think that one reason why John wasn’t more famous was that he came out. He is an important painter in the history of gay liberation. The paintings are unabashed and clearly gay though they were often bought by straight people.”
John Craxton knew Greece before mass tourism – relishing myth remaining in everyday life for rural communities seemingly unaltered over millennia. Now everything was changing – for the era of gay opportunity also.
As Edmund White adds: “The enemies of homosexuality are heterosexual dating, prosperity and the weakening of the Church, and all three things happened in Greece.” And then Aids shut the playground.
But the sybaritic world of John Craxton continued for as long as he drew breath. Sailors came and went – and many kept in touch as family men. His friends were mostly for life.
In 2006 he had a civil partnership with Richard Riley, his friend and lover first met in 1973, who finally became his full-time carer in London.
The Craxton party ended abruptly at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead early one November morning in 2009. The blissful pictures survive in full swing.
John Craxton: A Life of Gifts, by Ian Collins, is published by Yale University Press at £25.
Find out more about our upcoming exhibition, John Craxton: A Modern Odyssey opening 28 April 2023.