Posts Tagged ‘Ian Collins Craxton biography’

A biography by Ian Collins: a dissenting view

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over this book. It is written of course because John was an important English artist, indeed one of the rising stars of English contemporary painting in the 1940s. But he went to live in Greece and as far as the metropolitan art world was concerned disappeared from view.

Ian Collins, author of this  biography, met John for the first time in 2000, when John was almost 80 and living mostly in London in his old family home. Failing health had forced him to withdraw from his adopted home in Khania in Crete. Collins, as he himself more or less admits, clearly saw this meeting as a career opportunity, trying from the outset to persuade John to let him be his biographer. John refused. Upset by the way in which journalists he had talked to in the past had betrayed his confidence, he had vowed never again to give interviews. Collins persisted, persuading John to let him at least write a monograph on his painting and in the end to give his blessing to the biography project.

A Life of Gifts was published in 2022, 13 years after John’s death in 2009. It was received enthusiastically by the posh press, both newspapers and periodicals. It was in addition awarded the Runciman Prize as the best book of the year about Greece, in the face of competition from really first-rate books by Mark Mazower and Michael Llewellyn-Smith, both of whom have a record of producing ground-breaking books about Greece.

I know people who have enjoyed reading the book. I can see that it might make a racy read if you come to it with little or no prior knowledge.  John had grown up in a world of well-known artists, musicians and writers. His life was colourful and unconventional, much of it spent in the Mediterranean, which, in a certain kind of provincial English imagination, still seems to conjure images of relaxed licentiousness  and general dolce far niente. “Paradise,” Collins calls it. “Chania in the early 1960s was very close to heaven” (p287), as if poverty, cancer, sorrow, the death of children did not occur in such places. Unexamined clichés of the travel industry. But as a serious account of the life of a serious artist, the book  is a non-starter.

It suffers from two unforgivable failings: appallingly sloppy and inaccurate language and a failure to address seriously the manner and substance of John’s work.

How it got past the Yale University Press editors, I cannot understand. It is probably the most badly written book I have ever read. The teacher in me wants to cover every page in red ink and  the warning signs are there, right from the first page.

The story begins with a description of the Craxton family setting off on a summer holiday. We know nothing as yet about any of the people mentioned.

“The two youngest boys (the future painter and politician), baby and luggage went in the back of the Austin 12. Essie had the driver’s seat with Harold beside her, leaving three sons still on the pavement and no more room in the vehicle. One boy (the one who became the Spitfire pilot) was directed on to the tailboard, to sit in an adapted luggage rack with his feet dangling behind them. The last two (the producer and engineer) were sent ahead, to wedge themselves between the bonnet wings and headlamps – each clinging to a lamp-bar for dear and thrilling life.

“In that careless era before the advance of child protection agencies , the Craxtons set off in a wild westerly direction pursued only by waves from amused and startled onlookers, rather than by policemen with whistles and handcuffs. On reaching Chichester Essie celebrated with a few spins around the Gothic crown of the city’s Market Cross – giving all her children a lifelong love of fairground carousels…”

When I first read this I had to ask my wife to take a look at it to make sure my reaction was not totally out of order. Her response: What on earth is he talking about?As you read on it becomes increasingly clear that Collins himself does not know what he is talking about. He does not know where he is going, what he is trying to say sentence by sentence. There is no focus. Random bits of information are bunged in together without any clear relevance,  clogging up the sense. On p3 we are told that the Craxtons were a happy family but did not know that a Tuesday birth was a bad omen in Greece because it was the day Constantinople had fallen to the Turks in 1453. John had been born on Tuesday October 3rd 1922, the day a peace conference had decided that the only way to resolve the contemporary (then) Greek-Turkish territorial disputes was to send Greeks back to Greece and Turks to Turkey, thus killing off Greek hopes of ever reclaiming Constantinople. “By the weekend,” we are told, “London shared the mood of mourning” – because Marie Lloyd the music hall star had died! 

This is the first mention of anything to do with Greece in the book. 

In the very next sentence we learn that Harold Craxton, John’s father, “wore his erudition lightly under a Homberg hat.” A classic schoolboy howler, never mind the total absence of any connection with the preceding asides about Greece. And such howlers abound, zeugma and elegant variation, in particular. “Pursued by demons, with an opium habit and a revolver in his pocket, (Kit Wood) leapt under the Atlantic Coast Express…” (p50). A German fighter plane opens fire on a lane where John’s sister Janet is walking with some friends, “…sending Bim into a hedge, Janet into a barn and Sylvia into hysterics…” (p60). On p224 we get, “…though the drinks in their hands and the chips on the shoulders were even more lethal…”

On page 176 it takes less than one line for a British military motor launch to be transmogrified into “the water-borne chariot” (p176). On p338 we are told, “A Conté pencil devotee also played with any wacky pen…”. On p172 we hear that “the passenger’s sore throat was cured by boiled camomile flowers.” In both cases he is talking about John. A page later (173) he becomes “an English painter with a passion for archaeology” who “gauged the lie of the land in the nearest coffee-house – the main social haunt of masculine Greece, with strong coffee and ouzo served in the cloistered shadows to the clack and slap of komboloi beads, playing cards and backgammon counters.”And then there is just plain gibberish. “The creative conversation paused for swimming, just when benighted Britain was braced for one of the coldest winters on record” (p170). “John alighted on to this milieu like a butterfly – leading to light friendships with society hostesses…” (ibid). “If Hydra had been the toast of creative philhellenes from the mid-1950s, a glass brimful of inspiration and enjoyment had now passed to Chania” (p287). 

“The Australian painter Sydney Nolan and his wife Cynthia stayed for several months…, John being impressed by the obsessive working method of a questing artist that entailed hundreds of drawings scattered over the studio floor as he built up to the big picture. Half the world away, an exile was getting to grips with the spirit of his homeland via images gathered from Greek mythology, animal bones and meditations on First World War slaughter of Anzac forces at Gallipoli” (p246). Commenting on the death of John’s patron, Peter Watson, Collins writes, “A spiritual malaise in the young Peter Watson militated against old bones” (p246). 

Unawareness on this scale makes it difficult to have much faith in anything the author says, either his own judgements and observations or his ability to retell accurately what he has been told by someone else. There is no sign of the built-in shit detector that Hemingway called  the number one tool of a good writer. 

The bad writing is bad enough, but a more serious failing when you consider this is supposed to be the biography of an important artist is the absence of any serious attempt to examine his work.

The art critic, Andrew Lambirth, reviewing the 2014 Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition of John’s work, organised by Collins, wrote,  “…it is after all the work that lives on after the artist, whatever fond memories may all-too-briefly exist in the minds of his friends and intimates… We need to determine just how prominent a place Craxton should occupy in the history of the period… We need to go now below the superficial narrative of the man’s life to penetrate the meanings and boundaries of his art.”

“Going below the superficial narrative of the man’s life” is something A Life of Gifts signally fails to do. Superficial narrative is all we are offered and with very little psychological insight. A reader, commenting on the Goodreads website, picked up on this. While thoroughly enjoying the book, he wrote, he had one caveat: “I did not feel I knew John Craxton quite well enough; he remained ephemeral and slightly out of reach, I wanted those extra personal touches and perhaps a bit more of his vulnerabilities to bring him closer.” 

We get endless, almost gleeful catalogues of what appear to be entirely trivial and ephemeral homosexual encounters, like notches on a tally stick. Were all these relationships entirely without significance? They are recorded as almost without affect, like the daily movements of a man’s bowels. Why do we need to know about them? 

There is loads of name-dropping, visits by wealthy people with yachts who apparently rush off in search of sex with sailors and shepherds. We are given potted biographies of people who barely even have walk-on parts in John’s life. I get more mentions than Richard Riley, his partner of forty-odd years, surely an unpardonable omission in a biography. In fact the book reads more like a Tatler diarist’s account of a glamorous house party than a biography. The man in the middle  remains  curiously unrealised: a natural sensualist and hedonist,  we are told time and again by Collins and by his reviewers.

Whether it was John’s own fault for saying that life was more important than art or David Attenborough’s for making this remark the starting point of his eulogy at John’s memorial service at St James’s, Piccadilly, I cannot say, but Collins has taken it up as the frame into which he is determined to push the whole of John’s life: John was a hedonist, a natural sensualist. The reviewers all took up the cry: clearly it was the impression they got from reading the book.

What is it supposed to mean? That John liked his food, spent his time being tickled in baths like the Roman emperor Tiberius, lolled about in deckchairs in Mastroianni sunglasses, languidly sipping cocktails? And when did he find time to paint?

I do not remember John as a happy-go-lucky, carefree, reckless adventurer always on the lookout for a good time. I remember him as a very private person, sociable, yes, always ready with a story or a joke, but actually rather shy and, I think, quite anxious and restless and uncertain, not entirely comfortable with his own achievement as an artist. When I said once that “At least you have got that wonderful legacy of work to look back on,” he said rather dejectedly, “Oh really, do you think so, it doesn’t seem that way to me.” I think he used the playful face he presented to the world rather successfully as a way of keeping it at a safe distance.

I lived in Khania in 1963 and ’64. I was a 21-year-old English teacher. John was twenty years my senior. I got married there to my French girlfriend. John helped me rent the house next-door to his and equip it for married life. I have still got tables and chairs that he found for me in villages round Khania. 

I do not recognise the Khaniá that Collins describes, with its party atmosphere and “internationalist set.” The old Khaniá harbour neighbourhood where we lived was a run-down slum, overlooked by the red-light district. On the waterfront, where today every single building houses a bar, restaurant or café, there was one café, an old hotel with wooden floors and wire-sprung beds, and in the only break in the houses, where a German bomb had fallen, a homemade shack where the wind howled in winter and a few locals gathered to drink coffee and smoke a narghile. The people who lived here were regarded with suspicion by Khania’s respectable classes. My employer’s niece, a private pupil,  warned me that the harbourside was not a proper address for a young married teacher like me.

Collins calls us the “internationalist set.” To me that suggests at least a modicum of what passes for glamour: bars, cocktails, fashionable clothes and fashionable people. We were half a dozen foreigners: three serious artists or writers, a couple of teachers, occasional drifters and a rather pitiable American drunk. None of us had money and mostly did not hang out together. The world-famous gay pick-up joint that Collins speaks of was either a very well-kept secret or a figment of his wishful thinking. There was no tourism. The sailors who  came into town at weekends from the nearby navy base at Souda were penniless, homesick National Servicemen, paid not much more than the equivalent of £1 a month. John himself lived on a retainer of £40-odd from the Leicester Galleries. He was in no position to offer anyone a good time. 

The average annual per capita income in Greece in the late 1950s was just over US $300. In 1963 Greece had just undergone twenty-five years of war, occupation and political turmoil. The jails were still full of political prisoners. Political executions had taken place as recently as 1952. That very spring of 1963 the left-wing MP Grigoris Lambrakis had been murdered by right-wing thugs, the event that inspired the film Z. Any Greek wishing to get a job in public service or a licence to start even the humblest kind of business had to have a certificate of ethnikofrosini – being nationalistically-minded, i.e. not having any left-wing political sympathies. This was obtainable from the police in the village where you were born and your family’s history for several generations known in its entirety­ to everybody. Greece was not what I would have called a happy-go-lucky party town. But you need to speak the language to see behind that veil, as indeed you still do to understand any country today.

Collins tells us Henry Miller’s 1930s Paris circle was partly re-constituted in Khaniá. The basis for this exaggeration,  the appearance of Fred Perlès, who features as Carl in some of Miller’s books; he turned up in late 1963 or early 1964, I don’t remember which. I knew him reasonably well. He liked to talk French with us. His mother had been French and my wife was from Paris. The Zorba movie people were around for a couple of months, but their presence had no impact on the life of the town. The idea that there was any kind of set is nonsense.

I stayed in touch with John for the rest of his life: 46 years in all. We were neighbours in London too. My wife and I used to go to our favourite Turkish restaurant with him and his partner, Richard. He would sit in the back of our camper van holding my wife’s hand. On the morning of his death, I was on my way to see him in hospital when I was stopped in the corridor  by a doctor, who told me, with tears in her eyes, “Your father has just died.” 

Collins’s book hardly touches on the last twenty years of John’s life. He does not appear ever to have tried to talk about John with Richard, who after all knew him better than anyone and most of John’s friends were dead by the time Collins met him. The only survivor from Cretan days with a real involvement in Greece is me. I speak Greek, write Greek, have been married to the place and am still heavily involved in Greek affairs.  Collins quotes some things I have written but has not spoken to me since I warned him that he was in danger of making John’s interest in Greece sound like a kind of arty Shirley Valentine relationship. Between us Richard and I might have been able to steer him away from some of his dafter interpretations.

In the end – and this is surely a rather odd conclusion to a biography – one is left with the impression that Collins’s goal is somehow to take possession of John Craxton – his own version of him at that. I will not attempt to analyse the psychology of that. But he claims, for example, that he found a doctor for John in his last illness, not a word about Richard’s selfless care for John and it was Richard, not Collins, who had to put up with his petulance and irritability. He claims that John’s friends have become his friends. He has come to love Greece as John did. He does not appear to understand that the Greece that John found so magical does not exist any more. He has tried to take over John’s house in Khania, claiming that his partner, an architect, has “beautifully and faithfully” restored it. Restored it to what? It was a tip when I first entered it in 1963 and a tip when I last visited in 2006. He has tried to get the John Craxton Trust, which pays him a stipend and expenses, to pay his partner to rebuild a literally ruined village house that John had bought some years ago and never used.

At least, I suppose, one can say that the publication of a book illustrated with a lot of photos of John’s painting is good publicity.  The cruel irony, though, is that the book that has finally emerged as the result of his “trust” is one that would have been deeply disappointing to him. Thank God, he did not live to see it.

Time indeed for a reassessment.

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