JOHN CRAXTON, R.A. (British, 1922-2009)
Inscribed ‘Logs/Chichester’ (lower left) & signed ‘John Craxton’ (lower right)
Pencil, wash, pen and ink
EXHIBITED : John Craxton, Works on paper, hand coloured linocuts & prints,
Osbourne Samuel, 17 May-11 June 2011
Sheet length 35 ½ cm., 14 in., Height 45 cm., 17 3/4 in.
In a handcarved and gilded frame
Frame Height 58 cm, 23 in., Length 66 cm., 26 in.,
Craxton’s Sussex connections are significant to his artistic development. At the age of seven he was sent to a Sussex farm near Pulborough for makeshift lessons. When he became a choirboy at Chichester Cathedral, Craxton discovered he wanted to become a painter. ‘Two bas-reliefs in the cathedral were important in my life. They were Saxon/Norman. I used to see them every day and I realised that art was not copying nature but recreating it. It was the road to Damascus for me. I saw then how vital the imagination was.’
Unhappy attendance at the Prebendal Choir School in Chichester at the age of 9 was relieved by holidays at Selsey Bill in the ex-Army hut purchased by his father with royalties from his song ‘Mavis’, made popular by the Irish tenor, John McCormack. Caxton loved exploring the surrounding countryside and the nearby city of Chichester. ‘I owe it to Chichester for helping me to become a pagan but, above all, I owe to Chichester a Pauline conversation to what I most emphatically call art’.
He adored Chichester’s Roman street layout, the Gothic crown of the central Market Cross which was ‘a joy to go around and round in an open car and watch the arches merge into themselves;’ and the ; huge pale olive green stone’ cathedral. Inside the historic beacon he relished the low early 12th century Romaneque bas-reliefs depicting Christ arriving at the Bethany and The Raising of Lazarus. They provided a constancy in his shifting life. The two panels showed him that ‘great art from the distant past could be without epoch, it could look fresh and immediate and modern and clearly didn’t have to mimic nature to look real’. And he added ‘these sculptures were my talisman, for their astonishing dramas and great presence were there to see every day even when the heavy noxious smoke from my censer made me feel faint’.
In 1939 aged 17 John was lodging at Tenterden when he turned to depicting dead, split and toppled trees. Influenced by Paul Nash’s monster field images from 1938 he became fascinated by the drama when they fell, leaving stumps like the broken columns he had admired in churchyards as symbols of premature death. Logs at Chichester includes a church to reinforce this message as well as possibly symbolising the strength of the human spirit faced with the adversity of war and the importance of faith. The image of the tree stumps piled up on top of each other in disarray is most likely a metaphor for the dislocation and destruction of war, particularly as the outlines were to be echoed in the contours of crashed and burned out planes. During the Second World War there were 3 bombing raids on Chichester. Bombs were dropped on Basin Road in 1941, on Chapel Street and St Martins Street in 1943 and on Arndale and Green Roads in 1944. Furthermore in May 1944 after being badly damaged by enemy fire over France an American bomber crashed on the site of the old Roman amphitheatre.
One of the places that John loved most was the ancient woodland of Kingley Vale near Chichester, and he found inspiration in its towering and twisted yew trees which are among the oldest in Britain and which he believed to be remnants of a holy grove for Bronze or Iron age cults of forest deities.
This work has a distinctive neo-romantic style, although Craxton always rejected that label, preferring to be called an Arcadian painter. For him, classicism and romanticism were two sides of the same coin: combining a love of line, with an almost spiritual use of colour and light. In Logs at Chichester the subtle use of brown tones heightens the sense of destruction invoked by the dead tree stumps.
The sketches verso may have a connection to the work. The bow and arrow and dagger as motifs of destruction, and maybe the portrait represents John who was terrified of being called up which subsequently inflamed the pleurisy he had at school and led to him failing his medical.
Logs at Chichester preceeds Craxtons’ work of the early 1940’s where he develops the brutality and boldness of the landscapes including isolated figures which were emblematic portraits of the artist within them. Works such as ‘’Poet in Landscape 1941’ and ‘Dreamer in Landscape 1942’ were illustrated in Horizon in 1942 announcing a great talent setting a pattern for many of his wartime pictures.
Craxton sold his first drawing in 1941 to Mabel Lucie Attwell, and in the same year staged his first solo show in the newly opened Swiss Cottage café.
Paintings in Museums and Public Art Galleries:
• National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh
• Royal Academy of Arts Collection, London, UK
• Britten-Pears Foundation, Aldeburgh, England
• National Portrait Gallery, London, UK
• Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK
• Tate Gallery, London, UK
Malcolm Yorke, The Spirit of Place: Nine Neo-Romantic Artists and Their Times, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, London, 2001
Ian Collins, John Craxton, Lund Humphries, Farnham, 2011
This post was written by joecollinson