> > > A Poetic Eye: John Craxton on Cranborne Chase and Crete

Figure in Tree Lithograph by John Caxton (1944)

John Craxton (1922-2009) was one of the most interesting and individual British artists of the 20th century. His life story, starting with wanderings on Cranborne Chase, was as colourful as his later pictures of the light, life and landscapes of Greece.

A new exhibition at Dorset County Museum in Dorchester will chart Craxton’s journey from Cranborne to Crete, from early paintings of dark and menaced war-time landscapes to joyful scenes painted under bright Cretan skies.

“John Craxton was one of the art world’s best-kept secrets, but his reputation has surged since his death,” said exhibition curator Ian Collins.”The retrospective exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2014 attracted a huge number of visitors and we are hoping for a similar reaction here.”

“This exhibition will bring together many paintings and drawings never previously exhibited,” said Jon Murden, Director of Dorset County Museum. “It covers an extraordinary range of work from his early life in rural Dorset to Greece where he lived after the Second World War.”

Born in London into a large, musical and bohemian family, Craxton’s nomadic habit began early – staying lengthily with relatives and family friends and briefly at school after school until being pronounced unteachable.

From an early age Craxton lodged with an artist uncle and aunt in an ancient cottage, a short walk from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Farnham. Within this Aladdin’s cave of treasures from all periods and places, Craxton educated himself in art history and archaeology while revelling in untamed Dorset.

At 14 he saw Picasso’s Guernica in Paris with the paint still wet, and at 16 he was drawing in the French capital until forced home by looming war. Rejected for military service, he drew his first masterpiece at 19 – heralding a long series of haunted paintings and drawings which were studies in entrapment. A procession of solitary figures in dark and threatened landscapes were all emblematic portraits of the artist himself.

Mentored by Graham Sutherland, and enjoying a close friendship with Lucian Freud, Craxton won youthful fame with pictures hailed as highlights of the Neo-Romantic movement (a label the artist hated). He had great charm and luck. In the week that the Craxton family home was blitzed, his textile designer friend EQ Nicholson was moving into Alderholt mill house, on the Dorset-Wiltshire border. Craxton moved in too, and reflected the surrounding scenery in many of his war-time pictures.

In the first post-war summer, of 1945, John and Lucian went to the Scilly Isles as stepping stones to warmer climes. A year later John Craxton led the partnership to Greece, where, while always travelling widely, he would be based for the rest of his life.

Pictures initially inspired by Samuel Palmer and William Blake, and then by Picasso and Miro, finally owed more and more to Cretan frescoes and Byzantine mosaics as Craxton developed a linear colour language all his own. His singular art evolved from dark to light and from disquiet to joy. But to the end he visited Cranborne Chase – with late elegiac paintings and drawings of dead elms which seemed to come full circle with his war-time pictures of six decades earlier.

The new exhibition at Dorset County Museum, curated by Ian Collins, John Craxton’s biographer and executor, will explore Craxton’s journey into light and colour – following his travels from Dorset to Greece. The exhibition will run from 28th March to 19th September 2015, moving to Salisbury Museum early in 2016. The Museum is open from 10.00am to 4.00pm, Monday to Saturday.

‘Threshing, Burt’s Farm’, Minchington 1965

by Cecil Waller

Cecil Waller Paintings

As part of the exhibition is selection of paintings by John Craxton's uncle Cecil Waller. Cecil Waller and his wife Amy moved to Dorset from London in 1934, where they bought a cottage at Minchington in the Cranborne Chase. To supplement the small income from his art works, Cecil worked at the Eastbury Estate in Dorset, once one of the finest Georgian stately homes in England.

It was when John Craxton was staying with his Uncle and Aunt that he truly found inspiration in the landscape.

‘The great elemental landscapes were too monumental for me…. I preferred the more intimate places: metamorphic fallen trees, mill-houses and cart tracks were places close to my temperament.’

A Poetic Eye: John Craxton on Cranborne Chase and Crete - Official Exhibition Opening

Dorset County Museum warmly welcomed Sir David Attenborough and renowned art critic, Hilary Spurling to officially open the exhibition. Guests at the museum, were treated to Sir David and Hilary’s own personal accounts of what this exhibition meant to them. Sir David, who was close friend of John Craxton for over twenty five years, as well as a collector of his art works, gave a personal insight into not only Craxton the artist but Craxton the man. Sir David began by congratulating Dorset County Museum on securing such an important exhibition which shows both sides of John Craxton’s journey as an artist; from his war-time yearnings of an introverted painter, to his invention of line and use of coloured line to capture the vibrancy and colour of Crete. Sir David told amusing stories about his friend’s dislike for parting with his works, telling tales of Craxton taking pictures back after he had bought them because he wouldn’t accept they were perfected. Sir David described the exhibition as combining, ‘meaning, excitement and vibrancy’ as well as giving a heartfelt thanks to both Ian Collins, the curator of the exhibition, and Dorset County Museum for bringing Craxton back to Dorset and giving him the recognition as one of England’s great artists that he so deserves.

Hilary Spurling echoed Sir David’s gratitude to Dorset County Museum describing ‘Poetic Eye’ as bringing back to life a painter that has been previously ‘forgotten’. She went on to describe the exhibition as, ‘rediscovering Craxton and showing him in a richness and fullness that his contemporaries never had the chance to see’. She closed her thought-provoking speech by saying, ‘Craxton is very lucky to have Ian and we are also very lucky because it is us who reap the fruits’.