John Craxton’s Sunlight, Joy and Colour On Show At Pallant House

John Craxton, Still Life with Sailors, 1980-1985

The artist John Craxton (1922-2009) was a contemporary and friend of Lucian Freud. The current exhibition, John Craxton: A Modern Odyssey, at Pallant House Gallery concentrates on his life and work.

The show is arranged chronologically portraying the artist’s life as an odyssey from his early life in pre-war Britain and culminating in his awakening in Greece.

John Craxton was born into a Bohemian, musical family in London. He lived in his imagination drawing on his fascination for the ancient and mythology, themes expressed in his art. As he struck out he produced a series of melancholic landscapes and was, to his annoyance, associated by many with the Neo-Romantic movement.

His early self portrait displays the introspective qualities and palette of much of his work from this earlier period.

John Craxton, Self Portrait, 1946-1947

The influences of his mentor Graham Sutherland and the inspiration of Picasso, who he met, began to permeate his paintings with an increasingly radiant palette.

Shortly after the end of the war, in 1946, Craxton’s odyssey finally arrived in Greece. He was accompanied by his rebellious friend and contemporary, the artist Lucian Freud. Once in Greece Craxton’s work began to be emblematic of his homosexuality the works filled with a new found freedom; a sense of joyous rebelliousness and liberation. The work is far less introspective. He painted portraits, life and the scenes around him. The paintings are inculcated with the influences of cubism and surrealism with bold outlines and vibrant colour. The resilience of the people and the animals in the landscape are often tinged with a breaking smile, perhaps reflecting Craxton’s state of mind.

Still Life with Three Sailors painted in the 1980s captures these qualities. It depicts three conscripted sailors seated at a table in a Cretan taverna on the harbourside. These later works draw on Greece’s layered creative history, myths, sculpture, Byzantine mosaics and Icons. The sailors are like mariners in a Greek myth far from home.

But it is the composition, palette and domesticity of the scene which delights. The wall notice behind them implores taverna dancers not to break the plates whilst being applauded with the words ‘No Breakage by Order’. There is a lightness and humour to Craxton’s signing of the cigarette packet and dating of the beer bottle.

It is in these later works that you find sunlight, joy and colour – the perfect antidote to our winter rain and grey weather.

John Craxton: A Modern Odyssey runs at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester until 21st April 2024.