Artist Centenary: John Craxton, Hampstead, Camden

Published:
11:54 am July 14, 2022



A rare chandelier by sculptor Giacometti is the centerpiece of a festival marking the centenary of Hampstead artist John Craxton.

The painter hung the bronze object in his Kidderpore Avenue home after buying it from an antique shop in Marylebone for £250.

Now valued at a few million, he recognized it as a unique piece made for his mentor, art collector Peter Watson, which once hung in the offices of Horizon magazine. It is on display at the Holt Festival in Norfolk this month alongside paintings and letters by Craxton and his entourage, including Lucian Freud, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Jacob Epstein, Ben Nicholson and Eduardo Paolozzi. There is also a 1941 drawing of Two Shelter Sleepers by Henry Moore, who was a visitor to Craxton’s house.

James Glennie, the Festival’s Curator of Fine Arts, said: “We are very excited to present this very important exhibition. John Craxton was friends with many key players in mid-20th century art in Europe. He was influenced by Picasso and we are lucky to have Picasso ceramics for this exhibition. Also significant is the recently rediscovered Alberto Giacometti chandelier, which belonged to John Craxton and has never before been displayed publicly.


Chandelier for Peter Watson by Alberto Giacometti hanging in the music room at Craxton Studios, 14 Kidderpore Avenue.
– Credit: Estate of John Craxton

Glennie adds that although many of Giacometti’s bronzes were in multiples, this was unique: “The chandelier was commissioned by Watson and hung in the offices of Horizon magazine in Bedford Square Bloomsbury in 1949. Unfortunately the magazine closed a year later, then in the mid-1960s, it reappeared in a store in Marylebone High Street.”

John’s parents, Harold and Essie, bought Craxton Studios in 1946 after their home in Grove End Road, St John’s Wood was damaged by a bomb. Harold was a professor at the Royal Academy of Music and the studios provided space for his piano and six children. Their bohemian home became a focal point for artists and musicians including Benjamin Britten and Sir John Betjeman, and their children included distinguished oboists Janet Craxton and John, who split his time between Crete and Hampstead from the 1970s until upon his death in 2009.


Margot Fonteyn and John Craxton in Nafplio Greece, 1951

Margot Fonteyn and John Craxton in Nafplio Greece, 1951 According to Ian Collins’ biography John Craxton A Life of Gifts, the couple had a brief affair
– Credit: Costas Achillopoulos

A contemporary of Lucian Freud – who also grew up in St John’s Wood – Craxton attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts and Goldsmiths and held his first solo exhibition in 1942 at the Swiss Cottage Cafe. At the time, he and Freud shared an intense friendship and a studio at 14 Abercorn Terrace, St John’s Wood – funded by Watson. They left after neighbors complained about Freud’s girlfriends ringing the doorbell and the smell of dead animals they had painted.

“They were extremely close friends for over a decade until they fell out over the sale of a photo,” Glennie adds. “We show for the first time the correspondence of Lucian Freud to John Craxton.”


14 Kidderpore Avenue was built for artist George Hillyard Swinstead

14 Kidderpore Avenue was built in 1901 as the family home and studio for artist George Hillyard Swinstead and is today rented out to musicians and film crews.
– Credit: Courtesy of Craxton Studios

A mix between Edwardian and Arts and Craft, the studios were built in 1901 as a family home and studio for artist George Hillyard Swinstead. Today, it’s rented out to jazz, rock and classical musicians for rehearsals and recordings, and for film shoots from Ricky Gervais’ sitcom Afterlife to The Theory of Everything.

Jane Craxton, who lives in the ‘quirky’ house, says: “Grandmother lived until 1977, then Janet was in situ with her husband Alan who were both music teachers and used her for teaching and rehearsals. Uncle John came and went to Crete but always had a room here, and later a studio”.

“We’re a reasonably well-kept secret, it’s still a family home but also a place where people come to rehearse and make music. It’s held in high esteem by the music community who find it simple and welcoming. Nothing hasn’t changed much since the 1930’s – we’ve only had Wifi for a few years. It’s very decorated to John’s artistic taste, the walls are Mediterranean blue, the ceiling is yellow. We came up with the concept of shabby chic. Magazine photo shoots marvel at the slightly knocked over furniture and cobwebs. People walk through the door and say it looks like Dumbledore’s house. There is a special magical atmosphere. We have very lucky to live above the store.


Reclining figure with asphodels

Reclining figure with asphodels I
– Credit: Robert Cotton/Estate of John Craxton

A new biography of John Craxton by Ian Collins includes a chapter on family life at 14 Kidderpore Avenue and describes how moving to Greece helped him flee post-war homophobia.

“It shows what it was like to be a Craxton, growing up in a pretty anarchic household full of unique personalities,” says Jane. “My grandparents were known for their warm hospitality and the artists, musicians and actors they visited. My grandmother was a free spirit who understood the artistic temperament, for the children there was very little discipline and a lot of freedom, there seemed like you could do whatever you wanted as long as you were good at it.”

She recalls that Uncle John “could be very charming and very difficult”.

“He was very judgmental, intolerant and opinionated, but also loved parties – he didn’t behave like a conventional adult, he retained something of his childish fun.”

He left his belongings, including the chandelier, to a trust, which removed them for safekeeping. About the artwork, she says, “It didn’t mean much to me. I didn’t realize it was a significant artwork.”

With one of Craxton’s paintings recently selling for $400,000, Glennie hopes the centennial will boost his notoriety.

“He certainly deserves to be better known and I hope this exhibition and others will help to get his name known. His story is quite remarkable – how he rose from a very capable artist in the circles of Lucien Freud, and flourished from slightly austere images of war only to brighten considerably by the time of his arrival in Greece.”

Craxton-Picasso takes place at the Holt Festival from July 16-31. Visit www.holtfestival.org/fine-art/craxton-picasso/