During much of the Second World War (1939-45), Craxton's work was steeped in the pastoral subject matter and earthy colours of English Neo-Romanticism. But by the time of his first visit to Greece in 1946 his paintings had become more brightly coloured and increasingly Cubist in composition. Still Life with Cat and Child was probably painted in the latter half of 1959 on the Greek island of Hydra, where Craxton was staying with his friend, the artist Nicolas Ghika (1906-1994). He had been introduced to Ghika's work in 1942 by the collector Peter Watson who showed him reproductions of the artist's paintings of Hydra. The 'synthesis between the natural and the imagined' (quoted in John Craxton: An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings 1980-85, p.21) in Ghika's linear, cubistic pictures made a deep impression on him. His paintings after 1947 are also indebted to the Byzantine art that Craxton had first seen at the eleventh century church of Daphne, near Athens and at Santa Sophia, Istanbul, in 1946-7.
The tipped up table-top in Still Life with Cat and Child is reminiscent of the formal distortions found in both Cubism and Byzantine art. The schematic treatment of form and the absence of shadow and naturalistic colour remove the image still further from the empirical tradition of painting. According to Craxton, this tradition, which he traces back to the Renaissance, placed too much emphasis on physical appearance, whereas the distortions of Byzantine and Cubist art revealed the essence of their subject matter.
Following his usual practice, Craxton ground his own paint for this picture, mixing the pigment with a tempera binder. He has described the importance of using paint with 'a quality that excites' as vital, adding that 'I paint better with the best brushes and the most perfect colours' (quoted in John Craxton: An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings 1980-85, p.22).
Since 1946 Craxton has lived in Greece, in particular Crete, for long periods. His first visit was 'more than everything that I had imagined and far more than I had expected. I felt at home at once. It was like a homecoming really. I didn't feel a stanger there and the conditions for work were very favourable. As my first contact with the Mediterranean and the discovery of the action of light, the way light and shadow behave, the arrival in Greece was astonishing. But of course there is never only one reason why anyone does anything or goes anywhere, and it is difficult to unravel it all. I have little sense of being "British". In Greece I found human identities, people within their own environment. This new world fitted me artistically, and suited me socially and financially' (quoted in John Craxton: An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings 1980-1985, p.22)
Bryan Robertson, John Craxton: paintings and drawings 1941-1966, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London 1967, reproduced, cat.no.75
John Craxton: An Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings 1980-1985, exhibition catalogue, Christopher Hull Gallery, London 1985