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Watching the Dancers: John Craxton’s paintings from the collection of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten
Dr. Christopher Hilton
[ Artwork in Focus, Stories )
Dr. Christopher Hilton, Head of Archive and Library at Britten Pears Arts, explores the lives of couple Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, unraveling the story behind their extensive art collection at The Red House. Looking at their clandestine relationship, the blog shows how art became a sanctuary for the couple’s forbidden expressions of love. The collection includes works by John Craxton, some of which can currently be seen in our exhibition, John Craxton: A Modern Odyssey.
For more than 35 years the composer Benjamin Britten and singer Peter Pears lived together as life partners, their work together as musicians underpinned by a deep and fixed relationship that the two men described as a marriage. Although it was an open secret, for much of their lives that relationship was illegal and a plausible deniability had to be maintained at all times. For nearly two decades the two men made their home together in The Red House in Aldeburgh, in Britten’s home county of Suffolk, a house which now acts as a museum telling the story of their lives and careers.
Although the two men’s careers were made in music, the house bears witness to their deep interest in other arts: some ten thousand books, their spines well creased with use, line the shelves, and the walls are covered with art. The paintings and drawings that hang framed in the house, however, are only the tip of the iceberg. Their art collection totals over 1400 works, for the vast majority of which there was no display space: a large proportion of them were stored in cupboards and plan-chests during their lifetime and are now housed in the purpose-built archive building that now stands across the lawn from the Red House.
Peter Pears was the driving force behind the art collection, as he was in most things relating to the visual aspects of the Red House: Britten lived more through sound. It is a very individual collection, predominantly of twentieth-century British works and shaped very much by personal taste and personal connections rather than any art historical narrative: the deciding factor was simply whether they liked the work – or, sometimes, whether they knew and liked the artist – rather than a sense of an artist’s “importance”. Famously, on one occasion Pears had the opportunity, if he had scraped the money together, to buy a work by Picasso, but decided not to go ahead on the grounds that he did not like it enough and should spend the money on something more to his taste. When an artist found their way into the Red House collection, it represented a seal of approval and often of friendship: nothing is there simply because Pears or Britten felt that it “ought” to be.
There are some overlapping themes that bring this disparate collection together. Landscape is one: many works depict places that they knew, particularly Britten’s native Suffolk. Personal friendship, as noted, is another: paintings by or of their friends, that social circle including many who for one reason or another stood outside the social mainstream of the time – artists, refugees, gay men and women. Overlapping with this group are their colleagues, the people who collaborated with them: each of their operas needed somebody to design the costumes or set, and those artists’ works often find their way into the collection. And, of course, there is their sexuality: the male body, often nude or semi-nude, is a frequent motif. The two works currently at Pallant House Gallery epitomise this: a male figure emerging from the landscape in Shepherd and Rocks, and the elegant male figures, arms interlaced, in Two Dancers.
These themes converge in Pears’ collection of works by John Craxton. There are thirteen in the Red House collection; slightly over half of them show male figures, while almost all the remainder are landscapes. Throughout the huge archive of Britten and Pears’ papers, and those of their circle, one comes across many personal connections to the artist. Pears corresponds with Craxton, as does the director and producer Basil Coleman, another member of their circle whose papers are held here. Craxton’s younger sister Janet, meanwhile, was an oboe virtuoso who corresponded with Britten. David Attenborough, who collected Craxton’s works and spoke at his memorial service, was a correspondent, a frequent visitor to the Red House and a contributor to the Aldeburgh Festival. Here again is the motif of a network of connected individuals, with shared interests and a common commitment to the arts.
The life that Britten and Pears led in the United Kingdom was a balancing act: whilst their relationship was an open secret, nonetheless until 1967 it put them on the wrong side of the law (and of course even though the Sexual Offences Act of that year decriminalised it, it did not remove stigma and prejudice). Overt expressions of affection were dangerous, risking exposure, disgrace, and possible imprisonment. A 1968 portrait of the two men by Maxwell Armfield in the Red House entrance hall, showing them together in front of Snape Maltings Concert Hall, was revised by the artist when Britten felt uncomfortable with its showing Pears’ arm over his shoulder, the arm being painted out. The archives at the Red House show the effort that had to go into maintaining a deliberate obscurity about the nature of their cohabitation:, no joint bank account, no property held in common (the Red House was owned by Britten whilst their London base was owned by Pears, each paying rent and lodging for the time they spent at the other’s property), insurance inventories carefully specifying bedrooms as “Mr Britten’s” and “Mr. Pears’”.
Their life together was prosperous and solidly, tweedily respectable – a friend commented that it reminded him of a marriage between two prep-school masters – but there was a price to pay in terms of freedom. Although Pears was relaxed about his sexuality, the more open of the two to joy, Britten was an introverted and complicated character, for whom adult sexuality seems always to have carried an overtone of guilt, despite his many years in a stable loving relationship.
Craxton, by contrast, was open about his homosexuality, and eventually left Britain to live chiefly in Greece. His paintings, for Pears and Britten, must have represented despatches from another possible world, of removal from the legal and cultural constrictions of the United Kingdom, of Bohemian life in a warm climate where male beauty could be appreciated without anguish, as part of the natural world, and where two men could cast off their inhibitions and dance.
You can see Pears’ and Britten’s works by John Craxton in our exhibition John Craxton: A Modern Odyssey until April 21 2024 and you can find out more about Britten Pears Art and the Red House here. The house reopens to the public in March 2024.