William Feaver

The English El Greco

Talk about ‘enemies of promise’.

Talk about ‘enemies of promise’.

Talk about ‘enemies of promise’. In the March 1942 number of Horizon magazine there appeared what could be a heartfelt illustration of the whinger’s conceit propagated by Horizon’s editor, Cyril Connolly, to the effect that life stifles artistic ambitions. Plate 2, ‘Dreamer in Landscape’ by John Craxton, is a pen-and-wash drawing of horny plants breathing down the neck of a dozing boy. How very Craxton. Not yet 20 and already well-versed in overgrown styling and poetic self-pity.

For decades Craxton lived with the fact that early promise guarantees nothing. What in his salad days denoted a growing confidence — the tidied airs, the recurrence of good-looking lads in neatly facetted littorals — became as pigeonholed as Tintin graphics. Greece brought this on; for there, post war, in the late Forties, he found his land of promise: bright, clear cut, a hedonic mosaic of favourite things with which to fill pictures. Cats, fig trees, goats, taverna enticements, islands silhouetted across twinkling seas, were slotted together on Graeco-Byzantine lines. These emblems, his surface coverings, particularly appeal to those who’ve been there, lived there, and now miss it.

In passages of text fitted into gaps between illustrations, Ian Collins emphasises Craxton’s pleasures in life. There are key occasions, such as the summer day in 1937 when he and a schoolfriend were chauffeured by the schoolfriend’s father from their Boy Scout camp on the Seine to the Paris International Exhibition where ‘Guernica’ was to be seen. ‘Picasso’s formal invention was just incredible’, Craxton said 70 years later. ‘I remember the electric light bulb very well; no one had put it in a painting before to represent the light of the sun.’ A clear outline with a squiggle filament in the middle: it was the sort of image that stayed with him throughout; that and the Picasso cat stalking the rooftops, claws gripping the tiles, torn bird in mouth.

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