John Craxton (1922-2009) was a great hope for British painting in his youth but he moved overseas and spent 60 years away, mainly in Greece.
He made his name in 1944, aged just 21, with a show at the Leicester Galleries. Despite finding fame, he left England for Europe as soon as he could after the war.
Osborne Samuel Gallery is now showing John Craxton: Drawn from Darkness: Paintings and Drawings 1940- 1946 focusing on his work produced before 1946 (through the war years and up to when he left for Greece).
Prior to travelling abroad, Craxton had been befriended by Graham Sutherland (1903-80) whom he accompanied on trips to Pembrokeshire in Wales.
The gallery said this period focused on “arcadian pastoral landscapes of dreamers and poets”.
Means of escape
The show features around 40 works including Dancer in a Landscape (1943) and Shepherd in Landscape (c.1942).
Craxton said later in life: “Between 1941-45, before I went to Greece, I drew and occasionally painted landscapes with shepherds or poets as single figures… they were my means of escape and a sort of self-protection. A shepherd is a lone figure… I wanted to safeguard a world of private mystery.”
During these years, Craxton was friends with Lucian Freud (1922- 2011) and both were supported by the wealthy collector Peter Watson (1908-56).
The artist’s biographer Ian Collins said that when Craxton left for Greece in 1946 he was “off at last on his journey into light, warmth, colour and joy. But, drawn from darkness, the works he left behind glimmer in glory.”
The current exhibition has been long in the planning and was always due to follow the gallery’s 2018 show John Craxton in Greece – The Unseen Works (the first major selling show of works by Craxton for 25 years). However, the pandemic caused inevitable delays.
Gallery joint founder Gordon Samuel said the trustees of Craxton’s estate, his partner Richard Riley and his biographer Collins had always intended to show the earlier ‘Neo- Romantic’ works (a tag that Craxton hated, preferring ‘Arcadian’) and “if the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions had continued we would have waited until we were able to welcome visitors to the gallery, even in lesser numbers”.
Thankfully the launch of a Collins’ new biography John Craxton: A Life of Gifts was also delayed to ensure the two events coincided.
The exhibition runs until June 25 at the gallery in Dering Street, Mayfair, and online.