I hate the navy, but I LOVE sailors: Painter John Craxton escaped the oppressive homophobia of post-war Britain by moving to Greece. It cost him his fame, but he didn’t care: both his art and his sexuality flourished
- Ian Collins details the life of John Craxton in an evocative new biography
- Artist picked up soldiers and sailors every night after arriving in post-war Greece
- Had a affair with Margot Fonteyn, which didn’t last because he was drawn to men
BOOK OF THE WEEK
JOHN CRAXTON: A LIFE OF GIFTS
by Ian Collins (Yale £25, 384 pp)
At last! An artist who had a happy childhood! The Craxtons of 8 Grove End Road, St John’s Wood sound like a delightfully bohemian 1920s bunch: musical parents, five sons, one daughter, piano played, trees climbed, guests visiting for a week and staying for four years, family holidays spent in a converted Army hut on the beach in Sussex.
The only fly in the ointment was that fourth son John — the subject of Ian Collins’s evocative biography of the artist whom we most associate with Greece —was detested by his elder brother Antony. John was dreamy, delicate, fey; Antony was ramrod-straight and would become a BBC producer and pillar of the Establishment.
One of the pleasing ironies of this story is that homophobic Antony would eventually turn out to be a repressed homosexual all along.
Ian Collins recounts the life of John Craxton in an evocative new biography. Pictured: John with Patrick Leigh Fermor
Another difficulty dreamy John had to deal with was that his intense early friendship with Lucian Freud turned sour. Very sour.
In their early 20s, the two young artists (both born in 1922) were inseparable. They shared a London studio, had a joint show in London and roamed seedy Soho pubs together.
‘Lucian began to drop me when he found a better painter,’ John later wrote. He was referring to Lucian’s new best friend Francis Bacon, and we know that those two would also eventually fall out. When John dared to criticise one of Lucian’s paintings, that was the end.
He whistled on the street outside Lucian’s window, as he had always done, but there was no reply and never would be again. Lucian started a campaign of disparagement against John, which poisoned his life.
This beautifully produced book is a feast for the eyes and senses, full of reproductions of Craxton’s paintings of Greece, the country he loved most on earth.
Having been lucky enough to fail his Army medical (‘You’d be as much use to the war effort as a three-legged horse,’ said the sergeant), he spent the war years yearning for Greece, instinctively knowing it was ‘his’ country without yet having been there.
And, indeed, it turned out to be. As soon as foreign travel was allowed, he wangled a flight with Lady Norton, the wife of the British Ambassador to Athens, whom he’d met at a party. She’d borrowed a bomber plane parked in Milan, and offered to fly John to Athens.
As the pilot flew them over Venice, John asked: ‘Could we take a little detour and have a look?’
Having failed his Army medical, John escaped to Greece where he would pick up handsome sailors every night. Pictured: John Craxton’s painting Still Life With Three Sailors
‘Lovely idea,’ replied Lady Norton, and they swooped down through the piazza, narrowly missing the campanili. This was absolutely typical of Craxton’s charmed life. Somehow, arriving in a post-war Greece traumatised by Nazi occupation and now by incipient civil war, he managed to find beautiful lodgings with delightful locals on various islands and to spend every evening in a taverna on the harbour, where dancers not only threw plates, but lifted up chairs with their teeth and held them in the air.
Best of all, he picked up handsome sailors every night. ‘I love soldiers and sailors and hate armies and navies,’ he claimed.
Like Lucian Freud, Craxton had a gift for befriending people from the highest and lowest echelons of society.
One night he’d be travelling 4th class on deck with a crowd of Cretan peasants, chickens and goats; the next he’d be dining with Winston Churchill and Margot Fonteyn on Aristotle Onassis’s yacht, or hobnobbing with Lawrence Durrell or the Leigh Fermors in their lovely houses.
He expressed his constant state of marvel in his pictures, which evoke the light, the colours, the goats, the masculinity of the men.
John had a brief physical affair with Margot Fonteyn, however it didn’t last because she needed money and he was drawn to men. Pictured: John’s self-portrait
To read this book is to live in that world of sharp rocks, thorny shrubs, blazing sunlight, scraggy almond trees and gorgeous Greeks.
Craxton became allergic to England. When he was forced to go there he telegrammed friends: ‘I AM SAD. ENGLAND IS TERRIBLE. FOG. CLOUDS. I WILL DIE.’
On one trip home to design the sets for Frederick Ashton’s production of Daphnis and Chloe at the Royal Opera House, he made great friends with Margot Fonteyn. The following year she and John, along with travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, his girlfriend Joan Eyres Monsell and Freddie Ashton himself, would go on a boating holiday to Greece together.
The fun and freedom of it all is almost unbearable to read about in this stay-at-home summer. There’s a photo of a naked Margot Fonteyn sunbathing on a roof, her feet taut in the points position.
JOHN CRAXTON: A LIFE OF GIFTS by Ian Collins (Yale £25, 384 pp)
She and John did embark on a brief physical affair, but it didn’t last; Fonteyn needed money which John didn’t have (he was a perpetual scrounger), and John was drawn to men.
English gay artists were being ‘killed’ by repression and shaming in 1950s Britain, Collins writes, with feeling. ‘England killed them; Greece saved Craxton.’
If Craxton preserved his sanity by moving to Greece, he also sacrificed his fame. Having been a darling of Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, he was later dropped, seen as an irrelevant expat who’d gone adrift.
He was not included with Freud, Bacon and Ben Nicholson in the 1954 Venice Biennale. He didn’t really care. Craxton’s wonderfully positive life is sparklingly recounted here, and for me Collins’s book was an art-history lesson on a painter I didn’t know much about.
He didn’t like being compartmentalised as a ‘New Romantic’. He was just John Craxton, totally uninterested in politics, just wanting to immerse himself in Greece and to immortalise it in paint. This book captures his sweet, perpetually boyish character, his talent, and his luck.
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