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.

Gwen John Exhibition at Pallant House Gallery

Gwen John – A Corner of the Artist’s Roon in Paris, circa 1907-09, oil on canvas

Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris is Pallant House Gallery’s latest exhibition. It places this early 20th century British female artist and her work in the context of her life and times. Gwen John’s works are filled with restraint – an innate stillness, luminosity, and insight. Her paintings are beautiful and arresting.

The exhibition illustrates how Gwen John was influenced by her male contemporaries and yet her paintings stand apart, giving voice to an independent, modern woman’s view of the world. So many exhibitions today make assumptions about the knowledge and understanding that the viewer brings under the excuse of ‘letting the pictures speak for themselves’ but this existentialist approach neglects the importance of narrative, time and place, which enhance our understanding of an artist and their work. The narrative which accompanies Gwen John: Art and Life is superb and refreshing. This chronological exhibition traces Gwen John’s forty year career in the context of her time in London and Paris.

She was tutored by Henry Tonks and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. After a time at the Slade, she moved to Paris in 1904 where she would remain throughout her career. Gwen John had a ten year affair with the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. His influence blessed her with a fluidity and sureness of line. From 1904 her intimate life centred on Rodin. Her profound and overwhelming experience of sexual desire and love for him was given explicit voice in her writing but not in her art. She wrote extensively to Rodin, hence the poignancy of her pencil and watercolour study, Autoportrait à la Lettre, which she painted for her lover.

Autoportrait à la Lettre (Self-portrait with a letter), watercolour and pencil

Her relationships with contemporary women artists of the time including Mary Constance Lloyd, Ida Nettleship, Ursula Tyrwhitt and others are also explored. Gwen John’s paintings focussed almost exclusively on women and interiors. The similarities between Gwen John’s and Édouard Vuillard’s work is often commented on, particularly in relation to their beautifully observed and articulated attention to tone. Her oil, A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris at first seems intimate and personal to her but paradoxically it is influenced by the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi who knew Ida Nettleship’s family in London.

Gwen John: Art and Life in London and Paris runs until 8th October 2023. The beauty of her painting and insight is amplified by the quality of this exhibition’s narrative which eloquently describes the importance of relationship and place.

Chalk, Wood and Water at Pallant House Gallery

JMW Turner – Chichester Canal, oil on canvas, c. 1828 © Tate 2022

As Pallant House Gallery celebrates its 40th anniversary I am returning to its current exhibition Chalk, Wood and Water.

Sussex with her distinctive chalk-cliff coastline, Weald, and the rolling lees and valleys of the ancient South Downs, is as much an idea as a place.

This beautiful, expansive, textural exhibition seeks to articulate how the Sussex landscape has inspired, and continues to inspire writers, musicians and artists lending a distinctive voice to Englishness. The exhibition charts the ways in which Sussex has been a place of creativity, exploration and retreat in the context of so many artists’ lives.

This processional show begins with Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), journeys through the 20th century and ends with the contemporary and Andy Goldsworthy (b.1956).

It is the first time that JMW Turner’s oil, Chichester Canal, has returned to the city since it was painted in 1828. On the horizon the Cathedral spire, a ship and trees are outlined against the luminous sky. The artist had strong associations with Sussex through his patron and friend the 3rd Earl of Egremont at Petworth who had invested heavily in the Chichester Canal. The canal was part of a network which drew a line through town and country connecting Portsmouth and London.

Turner embraced a new vocabulary in his art to describe his modern age. It is easy to forget that it was a vocabulary which many of his contemporaries found shocking.

Andy Goldsworthy’s 2002 installation Chalk in the Pallant H

The contemporary artist Andy Goldsworthy was commissioned by Pallant House Gallery to produce the work Chalk in 2002. This fabulous installation was made from locally quarried chalk. The naturally weathered grey outer surface has been etched by the artist using a flint to reveal the white chalk beneath. Speaking about the sculpture Andy Goldsworthy said ‘Dig a hole up North and its black and stony and earthy. So to dig a hole in Sussex and to find chalk so absolutely pristine and pure and white…was like finding the sky in the ground.’

For me the luminous, pure white line in Andy Goldsworthy’s Chalk has an invitational quality to it reminiscent of being a pilgrim in the Sussex landscape, processional like this exhibition and life.

These two works capture in very different ways what is at the heart of this exceptional exhibition – the inspiration Sussex and her landscape has given and continues to give to so many of our nation’s leading artists.

Sussex Landscape – Chalk, Wood and Water runs at Pallant House Gallery Chichester until 23rd April 2023.

Art Inspired by the Sussex Landscape at Pallant

Duncan Grant (1866-1934) – Landscape, Sussex, oil on canvas, 1920 © Tate

For more than a thousand years Sussex has drawn artists to her rolling Downland landscape and exciting coastline. Artists such as JMW Turner and John Constable, William Blake and Samuel Palmer were all inspired by, and worked in, Sussex and are represented in this exhibition. The 20th Century saw a revival of this ancient tradition with many of the leading Modern British artists living and working in the county.

Sussex Landscape – Chalk, Wood and Water at Pallant House Gallery eloquently describes Sussex as a creative centre for artists and writers. But at its heart this beautifully narrated five star exhibition examines how the particular qualities of the Sussex landscape have inspired artists across the centuries.

Work by JMW Turner are accompanied by contemporary artists like Pippa Blake, Jeremy Gardiner and Andy Goldsworthy.

And at its heart is a roll-call of many of the leading Modern British artists of the 20th century including William Nicholson, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Eric Ravilious, Ivon Hitchens and Edward Burra. Camden Town, Vorticists, Surrealists and Abstract artists are all represented.

Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) – Detail of the Chalk Paths, watercolour, 1935 © Bridgeman Images

Eric Ravilious’ watercolour from 1935, The Chalk Paths leaves space for us as viewers to enter and occupy the landscape or scene in our imaginations.

The distance of the ancient, undulating chalk paths is emphasised by the barbed wire fence and the play of the breeze is discernable in the grassy hillsides painted in muted tones.

It was Vanessa Bell’s love for Duncan Grant and her sister Virginia Woolf which brought her to Sussex during the First World War. Her sister, the author, Virginia Woolf, wrote to her in the May of 1916 from Rodmell extolling the virtues and potential of Charleston house near Firle in East Sussex.

Duncan Grant’s Landscape, Sussex was painted in oils in 1920 and depicts the pond at Charleston. The curve of the pond’s edge echoes the enfolding Sussex Downland landscape.

Both paintings describe the inspiration and influence of the Sussex landscape on artists across the centuries.

We are a processional nation. We confidently embrace the modern and the new but always with one eye to the past. It is wonderful to see the modern and contemporary united in their narrative with works by JMW Turner and others from the 19th century. The exceptional exhibition catalogue is a must, too, and can be purchased from Pallant House Book Shop or online at Sussex Landscape – Chalk, Wood and Water runs at Pallant House Gallery Chichester until 23rd April 2023

Glyn Philpot at Pallant House

Glyn Philpot – Portrait of Henry Thomas in Profile, 1934-5, oil on canvas © Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

Pallant House Gallery’s summer show Glyn Philpot: Flesh and Spirit is the first major survey of this artist’s work in almost 40 years. It explores questions of human identity and society in a series of more than 130 works from private and public collections.

Acrobats, working class and society figures hang alongside portraits of young black men in this rewarding and complex exhibition.

I meet up with Pallant House Gallery Director, Simon Martin, who has curated the exhibition. I comment on how Glyn Philpot RA (1884–1937) so often lights his subjects in a dramatic way reminiscent of the Spanish Old Master painter Diego Velazquez.

Simon replies “Unusually there is a tremendous shift from incredibly traditional painting at the beginning which is very much inspired by the Old Masters through to a shift in about 1930 to a much more radical modernist style of work. All these different tensions – his interest in religion, he was a Catholic with a deeply held Catholic faith, but also classical mythology, and queer identity. You might see all of these things as being in tension but actually he seemed to find a way to sometimes express these different things in the same work which is fascinating. And the interplay between society figures like Loelia, Duchess of Westminster, but also working class models as well…fascinating contrasts really.”
Philpot’s personal passions – the male body and portraits of black men are central to this reappraisal of an artist who had fallen from view.

Glyn Philpot – Resting Acrobats, 1924, oil on canvas © Leeds Museums and Galleries UK/Bridgeman Images

These themes are keenly expressed in the dramatic portrait of Henry Thomas, and the earlier Resting Acrobats. Both paintings provide sharp windows into his sitters. The nobility of Thomas, an extraordinary depiction for its time, is in contrast to the weary, resigned expressions of the acrobats once the veneer of the stage has been removed.

Simon explains how Philpot’s formal training in London and Paris underpins his work “He had this very accomplished way of working so when he actually changed to a much more modern style…underpinning that was this incredible draughtsmanship. These things are rooted in his ability to capture expression in the figure. He was fundamentally a figurative painter. Almost every single picture is based around the figure in some way. The themes in his work are increasingly relevant today I think in terms of identity.”

This rewarding and complex exhibition provides an eloquent rediscovery of the work of Glyn Philpot with a ravishing array of work and runs at Pallant House Gallery until 23rd October.