Describing the abbey as a ‘living ruin’, he recalls, ‘crows and jackdaws were nesting in the broken gothic windows, ivy everywhere, long grass in the nave, cattle wandering everywhere’ (ibid). Although there are no birds or other animals in this drawing, the buildings and vegetation are given a sense of life by Craxton’s anthropomorphic treatment of the uprooted tree, and the vigorous linearity of his technique. In a recent letter, he stated that ‘I started to notice that fallen trees have a life of their own after seeing Monster Field by Paul Nash’. Summarising the picture, he has said, ‘All I can say is that it’s of two ruins that seem to have a life of their own. There is no story in the drawing’ (ibid).
The writhing, menacing vegetation that frames the ruined Gothic abbey was already a standard feature in picturesque landscapes and writing of the romantic period around 1800, and a taste for it was encouraged by a friend of Craxton’s, in John Piper’s (1903-92) booklet British Romantic Artists (1942). The linear technique and dramatic contrasts of light and shade, foreground and background are reminiscent of Samuel Palmer’s (1805-81) pastoral scenes. This combination of human emotion and nature lies at the heart of the British Neo-Romantic movement.
The sense of an endangered earthly paradise had considerable resonance in wartime Britain. Craxton can be included among a number of artists, including Keith Vaughan (1912-77), Graham Sutherland (1903-80) and John Minton (1917-57), who were concerned with what David Mellor described as: ‘the body and sexuality; nostalgia and anxiety; myth making; organic fantasies; the threat of war and extinction’ (Mellor, p.9).
David Mellor, A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, exhibition catalogue, London 1987
Bryan Robertson, John Craxton: Paintings and Drawings 1941-1966, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1967