John Craxton

Llanthony Abbey


Not on display

John Craxton 1922–2009
Ink and watercolour on board
Support: 507 × 636 mm
frame: 745 × 870 × 30 mm
Presented by Jean-Yves Mock in memory of Richard Roud and Peter Watson 2002


This drawing is of the medieval Llanthony Abbey which stands in an isolated position on the bottom of a steep valley in the Black Mountains, South Wales. Craxton, who also used an imagined version of this landscape for his drawing Dreamer in Landscape, 1942 (Tate T03836), visited the abbey in 1942 with the graphic designer E. Q. Nicholson (1908-92). Although he was surprised to find someone living there, in a house attached to the south side of the building, Craxton was pleased to see that the abbey itself ‘was wonderfully untouched by the ruinous and dead hand of the then Office of Works’ (John Craxton, letter to Tate, 2001, Tate catalogue files).

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).

Further reading:
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

Heather Birchall

February 2003

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Display caption

The building in the distance is Llanthony Abbey, a twelfth-century Augustinian house in the Black Mountains in Wales.

Craxton was a great admirer of his older friend Graham Sutherland (whose work can be seen in Room 23). Both were among a group of artists in the 1930s and 1940s who drew inspiration from the landscapes of certain ‘visionary’ nineteenth-century artists, particularly William Blake and Samuel Palmer. This ‘Neo-Romantic’ movement was seen by some as a retreat into national tradition at a time of international crisis and war.

Gallery label, August 2004

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