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More than surprised, I was actually rather shocked by the venom and silliness of William Feaver’s review in The Spectator  (June 25th 2011) of Ian Collins’ new book, a generous and extensive – indeed, the first ever – survey of John Craxton’s work, John Craxton (Lund Humphries; 2011). In fact, his article is less a review than a personal attack on John.

Tate Britain has organised a small exhibition to coincide with the publication of the book. The paintings are few and the show does rather give the impression of having been cobbled together to coincide with the launch of the book.

That said, I do not see how anyone could fail to be struck, for instance, by Pastoral for P.W., its wonderful movement and harmony and the striking colours: a perfectly balanced and dynamic composition. Music, in fact. And John often used to say, “The difference between my approach and Lucian’s  (Lucian Freud, the friend of his youth) is that Lucian has to have something to copy, whereas I paint from my imagination. For me painting is like composing…”

Or the big land- and seascape, based on the island of Hydra: an abstracted, schematic representation of the bare elements of the island – rock, angularity, spikiness – set  in a tessellated sea, a mosaic of dashes of brilliant, audacious colour against the distant mountain coastline of the Peloponnese.

Or the Cretan gorge, one of many that he painted, its architecture articulated and emphasised by the double and triple bright-coloured lines that are such a distinctive feature of John’s painting, the depth of the gorge pierced by a single broken line representing the penetration of the sunlight.

Feaver dismisses such paintings as “slotted together on Graeco-Byzantine lines”!

John was interested in the flat planes and schematic representation of Byzantine icon-painting. He said that going to Greece enabled him to get back behind the Renaissance and its influences.

“Not yet twenty and already well-versed in overgrown styling and poetic self-pity” – this is Feaver on John’s early work. Well, first, you might have thought, a young man of that age – a teenager, after all – might be forgiven a rather mannered introspection. But, included in the Tate show, are some wonderfully playful and entertaining letters that John wrote to EQ Nicholson, who was a kind of surrogate mother to him at this age. A read of them should have shown Feaver that self-pity was not something John indulged in and I never saw a hint of it in the fifty years I knew him.

There is something oddly personal in Feaver’s dismissiveness. John did not live an idyll, underlain by “scratchiness”; he lived a life like anyone else, painting, finding his way, and, yes, like most people who spend their lives painting or writing, he was often short of funds.

The “emblems,” as Feaver calls them, that recur in John’s painting were not a “hedonic mosaic of favourite things with which to fill pictures.” They were not “taverna enticements”; they were the elements of life in the poor, sun-baked, traditional rural society that Greece was in those  days. Men lived out on the mountain with their sheep and goats, shearing and milking by hand, sleeping on the ground, accompanying their animals at all times, as they still do. They fished, living on their small wooden boats, eating little, sleeping on the deck. They did their military service, the only time many of them ever went away from home. Their pay was not enough to keep them in cigarettes for a month. Their entertainment was comradeship and dancing: it was their means of self-expression – they did not read books; there was not any television. There was a NATO naval base at Souda, close to where John lived, whence the dancing sailors in his painting. “Tintin graphics,” indeed!

Life was poor, harsh, formal and ritualised. John’s painting reflects this. I can only think it is too great a leap of imagination for Feaver to understand how very different from sludge-coloured, blurry England the world that John had entered was.

He quotes some youthful, not very illuminating bit of philosophising about life that John had indulged in as a youngster and accuses him of “burbling away.” In fact, he goes out of his way to make this unusually articulate man, whose conversation was always full of wit and originality and startling insights, seem inane,  while, elsewhere,  allowing Lucian Freud to utter such profundities as, “The world is rather floorboardish,” without comment!

Perhaps it is just that Feaver is a fully paid up member of  the Freud claque, as Brian Sewell calls it. For John and Lucian did fall out, and badly. And I don’t suppose Brian Sewell’s repeated suggestions that John Craxton was the more accomplished artist and had taught Freud a thing or two have gone down particularly well with the claque.

Here is my little contribution to the Craxton/Freud feud. I was having lunch with John one Sunday not long before he died, when an old friend from the art world phoned to say that he had just lunched with Freud and had mentioned John’s name to him. “Oh, is he still alive?” Freud had replied, with exaggerated indifference. John’s reply – I could of course only hear his end of the conversation: “Next time, tell him I haven’t yet died of ‘art failure!”

*****

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