John Craxton, A Life of Gifts

[Image: (right) John Craxton, 1997. (c) Matthew Thomas]

The recent biographies of Bacon and Freud return us to the post-war milieu of Soho and Fitzrovia. A significant artist from this period was John Craxton (1922-2009). He was a luminary of the Neo-Romantic movement of the 1930s and early 1940s, which sought to depict not so much the events and characters of heroic myths – and the pastoralism of historical past – as to evoke an atmosphere of a pre-industrial age, at times bucolic and primeval, by using milder forms of pictorial Modernism. Like Freud (with whom he had a close but short friendship), Craxton was another well-connected boy wonder in London’s constricted wartime cultural scene.

According to Ian Collins’s new biography John Craxton: A Life of Gifts (not to be confused with a separate 2011 monograph on Craxton by Collins), Craxton had an unsettled childhood and a patchy education, spending time in Sussex, Dorset and elsewhere. He visited Paris in 1939 in search of contact with modern art and attended the Louvre. He took a few classes at the Académie Julian but was essentially self-taught. He was picked up by a publisher in 1940 and his Neo-Romantic illustrations provided him with an entry into the art world. Influenced by Samuel Palmer, Craxton’s early works are monochrome drawings and graphics on paper with paint in muted colours; they feature figures in densely drawn landscapes.

Craxton was part of the (not exclusively homosexual) circle around millionaire collector Peter Watson in that setting that included Freud, Cyril Connolly, Francis Bacon, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, John Minton and Kenneth Clark. Craxton was homosexual himself and – like many in the Fitzrovia/Soho sets – did not disguise the fact. Craxton fell in with Freud, a contemporary misfit and another enfant terrible of the Fitzrovia set. They met in 1941 and became inseparable until 1947. Both were engaged by pastoral landscapes and the figure, made portraits, admired realism but produced faux naïf art. Collins recounts with élan the pair’s hijinks in bombed London. They worked side by side in their shared Abercorn Place flat, sometimes working on pictures together, sometimes drawing each other. Their styles and subjects overlapped noticeably and it is hard to distinguish a leader and a follower. Later, some of the works in Craxton’s possession were sold as Freuds, much to the latter’s displeasure.   

Watson paid for Craxton to attend life-drawing classes at Goldsmiths College. When he taught there unhappily and unsuccessfully, for only a term. The future art forger Tom Keating responded badly to being corrected by him. Craxton and Freud worked alongside Sutherland on the South Wales coast. Craxton’s range was expanding from ink drawing to conté-and-white-chalk on tinted paper (animal still-lifes, very close to Freud’s) and oil paintings. These have slightly less intensity and detail than Freud’s but have better overall composition and cropping and are slightly more pleasing as pictures.

The Greece that Craxton first visited in 1946 had not begun recovering from war, occupation and civil war. There was a civil war between nationalists and communists ongoing at the time, which would eventually see the communists defeated. Craxton had already acquired an affinity for Greek cuisine in Soho and thought that a hot dry climate would help his health. (Unbeknownst to him, he had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis in London, the cause of constant weakness and inability to put on weight.) The sunshine and good food of Greece inspired Craxton the man, restoring him to health. His new surroundings were immediately evident in his paintings of coastal views, still-lifes, landscapes and figures (mainly sailors, objects of attraction). His landscapes are heavily derived from early Miró.

Craxton went to Poros – lauded by Lawrence Durrell, George Seferis and Henry Miller – where Freud joined him in September 1946. “Lucian would remain in Greece for five months during which he produced the most beautiful work of his life. John never really left, in every sense finding himself in Greece.” Freud painted Craxton and himself, largely deprived of portrait subjects, and made still-lifes of fruit. Craxton was painting simplified townscapes, using the smooth surfaces and subtle brushwork the pair liked. They tapped Lady Norton, wife of diplomat Sir Clifford Norton, in order to sustain themselves in necessities.

Planning a joint exhibition of their Greek art, the pair returned to London in time for the severest winter of the century in Britain, exacerbated by a chronic fuel shortage. Craxton went to Crete in autumn 1947 and responded strongly to the mixture of Greek culture and Minoan art and architecture. Craxton mingled with shepherds and lived in the mountains; he also courted danger by seeking out bandits. Crete would become the centre of his imaginative world and he would henceforth live and work in Crete and London.

The London Gallery showed Craxton and Freud together and separately. Craxton sold well and was more prolific than Freud. Craxton’s scenes of Mediterranean life offered the deprived, ration-bound residents of Great Britain a sunny escape. Wyndham Lewis thought his pictures to be lightweight: “a prettily tinted cocktail, that’s good but does not quite kick hard enough.” While Craxton’s Picasso-inflected art of scenes and people of the sunny South struck a chord and found collectors, they came be viewed as increasingly out of step with the age of Existentialism and the Geometry of Fear.     

In 1951 Frederick Ashton invited Craxton to design the set for the Covent Garden production of Ravel’s ballet Daphnis and Chloë. Craxton formed a close but short-lived friendship with lead ballerina Margot Fonteyn, who visited Crete, accompanied by Ashton. The production was considered cutting edge for its modern dress and décor, only receiving full appreciation after it had closed.

Craxton settled in Chania, a port on the coast of Crete. In 1955, Craxton’s penchant for sailors caught him out. He was accused of being a spy who had informed on a gun-running operation to Cyprus. As a foreign bohemian who travelled to London frequently, had links to the British Embassy and caroused with Greek naval men, Craxton was an obvious suspect. It was not true but the suspicion lingered even after his death. Craxton came to speak demotic Greek well and became involved in preserving Cretan heritage, which was disregarded by locals, especially when buildings dated to the Muslim occupation. Once he was suspected of harbouring antiquities. Craxton announced, “I have absolutely nothing Greek (ie antiquities) in the house except men and wine.”  

Exhibitions at Mayor and Leicester galleries met collector demand. His art developed modestly. The curvilinear style that Picasso and Braque used was also found in Minoan murals. The mixture of Modernism and ancient art turned to decorative ends also incorporated Pop Art. The Butcher (1964-6) shows the influence of Patrick Caulfield, Pop Art and hard-edge abstraction, with its emphatic straight outlines and planes of uninflected strong colour. Breaking up surfaces into parallel lines of alternating colour (such as Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-67)) the appearance of a tapestry. It is not coincidental that at this time Craxton was examining Byzantine mosaics.


[Image: John Craxton, Two Figures and Setting Sun (1952-67), oil on canvas, 122 x 244 cm. (c) John Craxton Estate.]

His apparently impressive retrospective in 1967 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery confirmed his ability and the pleasure-giving capacity of his art and also his definitive distance from the critical consensus and fashion. During the Greek military junta (1967-74) Craxton went into exile, considered an undesirable by the regime. He wandered the ports of the Mediterranean in search of a substitute utopia. In 1973 a compensation came in the form of Richard Riley, who became his romantic partner for the rest of Craxton’s life.

When a group of drawings by Craxton and Freud surfaced, Freud disputed them, claiming they had been tampered with. He threatened the gallery with a lawsuit but the exhibition went ahead in 1984. The friendship, which had become distant over the years, was now dead. Freud’s capacity for grudge-bearing and feud-starting was legendary. Although the exhibition was a success, Craxton was hurt by Freud’s anger and Freud’s cutting remarks lingered in his mind until he died, according to friends.

However satisfying the art from the 1940s and 1950s is, one might find a lack of development in Craxton’s production disappointing. He was ultimately somewhat conservative in nature and timid. In his Neo-Romantic work, we see Samuel Palmer resuscitated with Miró and Picasso – all of whom laid out the styles and devices Craxton would use. It is true that not all artists must be original to be dazzling or wonderful, but greatness requires an essential forcefulness and daring, which Craxton lacked. Anyone painting in the 2000s as he did in the 1950s is someone who has the temperament of an artisan rather than an artist.

Another travail of old age was the incident when Craxton was drugged and thieves stole art from his house – including a Miró and a Sutherland. The thieves did not take any Craxtons. “Never losing a sense of humour, he claimed to have been not only robbed but insulted.” His final years were spent in London, where he died in 2009. His ashes were taken to Crete. Shortly before his death, he consented to be interviewed by Ian Collins for this biography and a monograph on his art. Collins has done well to search out personal acquaintances and track down photographs of the art, artist and his circle.

Elements of Craxton the painter remain a little elusive. Did Craxton write statements about his art, have a diary or pen useful letters? How productive was he? Did he destroy much? Did he disavow or criticise any of his work? What was his taste in art made by others? Although Collins adds a little near the end about Craxton’s routine and practices, readers may wish for more time inside the artist’s studio and his head. Yes, the art is enjoyable but did Craxton have strong ideas about what art – specifically his art – should do and not do?    

These cavils should not deter anyone interested in Craxton and his art from reading this thoroughly researched, attractive and vivid biography.

Ian Collins, John Craxton: A Life of Gifts, Yale University Press, 11 May 2021 (UK)/22 June 2021 (USA), hardback, 384pp, 160 illus., $35/£25, ISBN 9780300255294

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

Two Lives in Colour: Fred Dubery & Joanne Brogden

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[Image: Fred Dubery, Anemones, oil on board, 30.5 x 25.5cm. © The Estate of Fred Dubery and Joanne Brogden]

The paintings of Fred Dubery ARCA, Hon. NEAC (1926-2011) are woven into this book which recounts the story of two lives, his and his wife’s, Joanne Brogden (d. 2013). Dubery studied at Croydon School of Art in 1944-8, then at the Royal College (1950-3). Studying under Rodrigo Moynihan he became friends with fellow students Carel Weight and Ruskin Spear. He taught at Walthamstow School of Art from 1958. While at Walthamstow, Dubery taught Peter Greenaway, who contributes his memories of his tutor to this book. Other friends assisted author Ian Collins with their memories. It was at Walthamstow, in 1960, that Dubery met fashion tutor Joanne Brogden. She had previously studied at Harrow School of Art and the RCA. Brogden was admired her skill and meticulous eye for detail. She went on to become a lecturer and later head of the fashion department at the RCA. (Dubery also taught occasionally at the RCA.) Always dressed immaculately, she became a respected teacher and author and well-connected figure in the British fashion world of the 1960s and 1970s. She retired from the RCA in 1989. The couple married in 1965. Dubery later taught at the Royal Academy Schools, becoming Professor of Perspective in 1984. Although he exhibited at RA Summer Exhibitions from 1950 onwards, he was not elected ARA or RA. He was elected a member of NEAC in 1956.

When the couple took a country house in Stowmarket, Suffolk Dubery had ample opportunities to paint congenial subjects both indoors and outdoors. The couple spent Easters in France while they were teaching, spending longer spells there after their retirements. They also visited Italy and Belgium. Much of Dubery’s art celebrated the quiet comforts of domestic life. The paintings seek to capture Dubery’s pleasure and transmit it to others. His most frequent subjects were landscapes of Suffolk and France, garden views, flowers, still-lifes and interiors. Some of the best outdoor paintings are the pictures including frameworks in the form of fences, gates, scaffolding, beach greenhouse frames, aviaries and other regular linear structures. He painted portraits but most of his figures are part of interior pictures rather than sole or dominant motifs. Some of the portraits were commissioned. Nudes appear only rarely. His Seated Model (u.d.) is a fine painting in the tradition of Sickert’s Camden Town series of female nudes. A Sickertian approach is also apparent in Dubery’s views of Venice.

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[Image: Fred Dubery, Arsenale, Venice, oil on board, 71.1x 35.6cm. © The Estate of Fred Dubery and Joanne Brogden]

His style ranges between realism – at times close to the photo-derived realism popular in the late 1960s early 1970s – to the looser application of paint used by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Paintings reminiscent of the French Post-Impressionists and the Intimists Bonnard and Vuillard are commonplace in Dubery’s output. In this book no dates are given for paintings. This makes it difficult to discern whatever developments there were in Dubery choice of subjects and technique. There are few direct quotes from Dubery to reflect his views on art (his own and that of others).   The book includes some fashion drawings and animal sculptures by Brogden, the latter made after her retirement.

The couple lived a full life, travelling, socialising and viewing and making art until the end. After Dubery’s death, Brogden dedicated herself to the preservation and promotion of his art. The couple’s joint grave is next to that of the DJ John Peel, a fellow resident of Stowmarket.

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[Image: Fred Dubery, The Straw Hat, oil on board, 40.6×30.5cm. © The Estate of Fred Dubery and Joanne Brogden]

Most of the book’s illustrated pictures are from the estate of the couple, now owned by the East Anglia Art Fund. The EAAF now sells the art from the estate of the couple to fund scholarships for art and fashion students from East Anglia.

While the book is very good on the life and times of the couple, their milieu and memories of friends, it is light on discussion of Dubery’s art. Perhaps it would be best to consider this book a lavishly illustrated celebration of their lives rather than a painter’s monograph. Let us hope that the EAAF sets aside some funds to publish a traditional artist monograph on Dubery and a biography of Brogden to complement this enjoyable introduction to their lives.

 

Ian Collins, Two Lives in Colour: Fred Dubery & Joanne Brogden, Unicorn, 2019, hardback, 159pp, fully illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 911604 73 0

Forthcoming exhibitions of art by Fred Dubery: East Gallery, Norwich University of the Arts, Norwich (22 January-16 March 2019); Coningsby Gallery, London (10-19 June 2019); Holt Festival, Holt (20-27 July 2019). Proceeds of sales support EAAF’s student scholarship programme.

 

© Alexander Adams 2019

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art