John Craxton

Pastoral for P.W.


Not on display

John Craxton 1922–2009
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2045 × 2626 mm
frame: 2091 × 2644 × 63 mm
Purchased 1984

Display caption

The painting is dedicated to Peter Watson, a collector of modern paintings who had supported Craxton and co-founded both the magazine 'Horizon' and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Peter Watson also paid for a studio for John Craxton, which he shared for a while with Lucian Freud. Here Craxton responds to the brilliantly-lit landscape of Greece, which he first visited in 1946 after hearing that it was like Pembrokeshire, where he had painted with Graham Sutherland. This painting also celebrates the power of music; the goats are held in its thrall. The goats are also 'capricious portraits' of Craxton's friends eg Lady Norton, who was a founding supporter of the ICA.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

T03838 Pastoral for P.W. 1948

Oil on canvas 78 1/2 × 103 3/8 (2045 × 2626)
Inscribed ‘to-P.W. Craxton 48’ b.l. in oval.
Purchased from the artist through Christopher Hull (Grant-in-Aid) 1984
Exh: Work from 1947 to 1949 by John Craxton, The London Gallery, June–July 1949 (1, as ‘Pastoral, to P.W.’); John Craxton paintings and drawings 1941–1966, Whitechapel Art Gallery, January–February 1967 (34, as ‘Pastoral’ and with incorrect dimensions); John Craxton Drawing and Painting 1942–1972, MacRobert Centre Art Gallery, University of Stirling, February 1972 (9, as ‘Pastoral’); Decade 40's, AC tour, Whitechapel Art Gallery, November 1972, City Art Gallery, Southampton, December 1972–January 1973, Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, January–February 1973, Durham Light Infantry Museum and Arts Centre, Durham, February–March 1973, City Art Gallery, Manchester, March–April 1973, City Art Gallery, Bradford, April–May 1973, Museum and Art Gallery, Aberdeen, May–June 1973 (82, as ‘Pastoral’)
Lit: [Robert Melville], ‘Exhibitions: Current and Recent’, in ‘Marginalia’, The Architectural Review, CVI, August 1949, pp.129–30 (repr. fig.1, p.130, as ‘Pastoral, to P.W.’)
Also repr.: In col. in Geoffrey Grigson, John Craxton Paintings and Drawings 1948, plate 1, as ‘Pastoral’ (incorrect dimensions given)

In a letter to the Tate Gallery of March 1984, the artist wrote:

I painted ‘Pastoral’ as a homage to Peter Watson, its title was originally ‘Pastoral for P.W.’...Peter took the dedication off the title when it was reproduced in the Horizon monograph [by Grigson, cited above] as he had preferred to keep a low profile. I would like to have the correct title put back if possible.

Victor William Watson (1908–56), known as Peter, was a co-founder both of the magazine Horizon (in 1939, first issue published January 1940) and of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (in 1948). His obituary in The Times, 5 May 1956, recorded that:

he animator who lent his encouragement and gave his support wherever he saw genius or talent. He was one of those very rare people whose faith is in the creative genius of others. [He was] one of the very few people who bring to work and to other people the passion of personal choice-and have the time and means endlessly to encourage artists.

Adam magazine, nos.385–90, 1974–5 (a single issue) contains articles on Peter Watson by Alan Pryce-Jones, Roland Penrose, Priaulx Rainier, Michael Wishart and David Mellor, on pp.91–101.

In a letter postmarked 16 June 1986 Craxton recalled:

My friendship with Peter Watson really began in 1941. Due to the war he had been forced to leave his flat in Paris with its collection of paintings, and had installed himself in a flat in 10 Palace Gate, London. I remember when I called there Colquhoun and MacBryde were temporarily in residence, on the walls were ‘Entrance to a Lane’ and ‘Gorse on a Sea Wall’ by Sutherland, a marvellous Christopher Wood, Picasso's ‘Minotauromachy’ to name but a few. Lucian and I were often there, going through old Cahiers d'Art, Minotaur, and Verve. Peter's records were also a revelation to me. I could listen to Stravinsky, Berg, Bartok, Hindemith and Jean Francaix for the first time. In 1942 he encouraged me to find a studio and send him the bill. Lucian jointed me in sharing a maisonette in St. Johns Wood.

In a letter to the compiler postmarked 26 April 1986, Craxton stated:

It's sad that so few people know today of the extraordinary influence Peter Watson had on the artistic life in England from 1940 till his death... Just to list his interests doesn't really do him justice, because he was above all a marvellously intelligent friend to so many poets, sculptors, musicians, writers, painters etc. He was certainly the most perceptive ‘man of taste’ I've ever known, with an extraordinary ‘nose’. His encouragement for the arts was not only verbal but practical. Personal encouragement is quite different from that doled out by committees and such like...At the time he was alive he and Roland Penrose shone out like beacons.

A major theme of ‘Pastoral for P.W.’ is Craxton's response to Greece, which he first visited in 1946, and where he eventually settled and still lives. In answer to a question from Bryan Robertson in ‘Dialogue with the Artist’ in the catalogue of his exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1967, Craxton recounted that:

I went to St David's Head, in Pembrokeshire, with Peter Watson and Graham Sutherland, in 1943. There were cloudless days and the land was reduced to basic elements of life; rocks, fig trees, gorse, the nearness of sea on all sides, a brilliantly clear light. Everything was stripped away-all the verbiage, that is-to the essential sources of existence. Sitting and talking there one day with Peter Watson, I was told that the landscape was like Greece, and this was possibly the crystallisation of my desire to travel to Greece...In 1946, through a fortuitously happy series of coincidences, I was invited to go to Greece by Peter Norton [Lady Norton, on whom see below]. I don't consider that there is any radical break between what I was painting before visiting Greece and work done subsequently: I had always been drawn towards certain features of landscape, and a human identity in it, an inhabited landscape if you like, which were like tokens for Greece. But I only understood this after I arrived in Greece. At the back of all this is the fact that through the war years I was very conscious of Poussin, as well as the North African journal of Delacroix, and bearing in mind my concern for people living in a landscape, and the obvious need for sun and light after the war years, I also wanted to reorientate myself and get away from the possible limitations of the English tradition-at any rate, the circumscribed area as it was during the war years. Above all I wanted to get direct first-hand experience of what I knew I needed from life, and a real place and people, rather than through art. I felt that only a drastic uprooting would give me the stimulus I needed.

Greece was more than everything that I had imagined and far more than I had expected. As my first contact with the Mediterranean and the discovery of the actions of light and shadow, the way the light behaves, the arrival in Greece was astonishing. In all other ways, it seemed like a homecoming. Perhaps the other central discovery though, was the salutary one, for a painter, that life is more important than art.

At the time ‘Pastoral for P.W.’ was painted, Peter Watson's flat was small. ‘He was at one moment very serious about buying Matisse's “Red Studio” in 1943 which he could have bought for £700 from the Redfern. I was going to house it in my studio till Peter found space for it’ (letter of April 1986). ‘Pastoral for P.W.’ is larger than Matisse's ‘Red Studio’. Craxton records about it that:

the idea I had of doing it as a gift for Peter Watson was a sly joke as he lived in a minute flat choc full of wonderful books, paintings, furniture, sculpture, etc., hardly room to swing a mouse. No-one wanted large paintings so it was an act of Joie de Vivre [‘a gesture against confined space’ (letter, March 1984)]. I bought the largest piece of canvas available and nailed it to the largest wall of my room [in London]...[It] was done with the actual size of the canvas dictating the composition from the start. I have somewhere a very slight sketch for it all but it's an absurd scribble (ibid.).

While ‘Pastoral for P.W.’ was in progress, Felix Man took a photograph of Craxton standing in front of it (repr. as frontispiece in Grigson, 1948, op.cit., and slightly more fully in William Feaver, ‘Wartime Romances’, The Sunday Times Colour Magazine, 20 May 1973, pp.74–85, repr. p.76). Part of the painting can be seen. ‘I was ill with pleurisy at the time and I think I looked it!’ (letter, April 1986).

‘Pastoral for P.W.’: was a celebration of the power of music. My sister [the distinguished oboist Janet Craxton] was learning the oboe on the same floor at the time and the house was full of her scales and exercises coupled with my discovery that goats, which seem to be daemonic, wilful and undisciplined, are held in thrall by the sound of a flute, or have I gone a step further and frozen them into my geometry with a paint brush? (ibid).

In his letter postmarked 16 June 1986, Craxton added:

I suppose the flautist was in origin myself but a very emblematic me. It was good that this painting marks the end of all those ubiquitous self portraits. It was in 1948 that I discovered Crete and made a large number of objective portraits of Cretan shepherds, real ones!

For several decades goats have been one of the principal subjects of Craxton's painting. Although Craxton emphasises that ‘Pastoral for P.W.’ ‘hasn't any more need of programme notes than has Stravinsky's Symphony in 3 Movements that I was incidentally playing over and over again at the same time when I first started the painting’ (letter, 3 May 1984), the goats in this picture have more than purely animal origins:

I had, on the commencement of the painting, the idea of making it a kind of ‘Enigma Variation’ with all the goats being ‘capricious’ portraits of my friends (Lady Norton acquired a private name from the charmingly wicked Sir Steven Runciman from this painting-she was very fond of rock climbing!). As I progressed I dropped the idea. I feel it still remains an area where the geometry of order and the forces of disruption are at play (ibid.). Peter Watson was the goat on the right, Lady Norton at the bottom and so on. The tall tree in the middle was completed after a weekend at Geoffrey Grigson's. I spent some time with a prismatic lens [‘The tree in the middle was finished as a result of looking at branches through a crystal’ (letter, March 1984)] (letter, April 1986).

I had at least painted a celebration that came from the heart, knowing of course that no-one could house it or want it. It hung for years in my father's studio ...Later it joined up with the large Giacometti chandelier that Peter Watson had commissioned for the Horizon offices in Bedford Square, an amusing link-up (letter, March 1984).

This chandelier, which Craxton bought after it had been in store for years after Peter Watson's death, was ‘commissioned from Alberto and Diego in or about 1948’. A portrait of Peter Watson by Alberto Giacometti, dated 1954, belongs to the Alberto Giacometti Stiftung.

One of the originally-intended goat-portraits was to have been of Lucian Freud. Lady Norton (d.1972), who is mentioned above as the subject of another, was a founding supporter of the Institute of Contemporary Arts. In a letter postmarked 16 June 1986, Craxton recalls that she:

was married to Sir Clifford Norton who, before the war, was British Minister in Warsaw. In 1940 they escaped and reached Switzerland where he headed the Legation in Bern during the war years...Lady Norton (Peter to her friends) was instrumental in taking me to Greece for the first time in May–June 1946. She was a very remarkable person and to call her an original is not nearly enough. Her enthusiasms were backed up by acts. She was always helping artists and moving heaven to help them. I remember Peter Watson writing to me from Switzerland when he first met her, describing her as ‘Art mad, even madder than I am’! Her deepest passion was for abstract art, but before the war [she] had run the London Gallery in Cork Street with Edward Mesens, exhibiting now well known painters from abroad for the first time...I remember in Athens [where Sir Clifford Norton was British Ambassador 1946–51] she transformed the Embassy into something unique with her modern paintings on the walls.

Peter Watson ‘was always sparing in comments... He never said much when he liked something, but I remember he liked the ‘dislocated rhythms’ of ‘Pastoral’ and the gas flame blue of ‘Dark Landscape’. The fact that he reproduced them was comment enough’ (letter, 26 April 1986). Craxton's ‘Elegiac Figure (in memory of Peter Watson)’ 1959 is reproduced in the catalogue of his Whitechapel Art Gallery retrospective of 1967.

‘Pastoral for P.W.’ is close in style to the following four paintings, each of which, like the Tate's picture, represents one or more people and one or more goats, and includes similar semi-abstract triangular sub-divisions of the composition and sharply-delineated trees or foliage: ‘Greek Farm’ (repr. Penguin New Writing, 32, 1947 (n.p.)); ‘Shepherds near Knossos’ 1947 (approx. 914 × 1220 mm, repr. Grigson, op.cit., plate 20 and 1967 Whitechapel catalogue); ‘Galatas’ 1947 (oil on canvas, 760 × 1015 mm, collection The British Council, repr. Grigson op.cit., plate 21); and ‘Farm Yard’ 1947–8 (oil on canvas, 1047 × 1346 mm, repr. 1967 Whitechapel catalogue). The Tate Gallery owns Craxton's first Greek landscape, ‘Hotel by the Sea’ 1946 (T00117), of which Peter Watson owned a small version.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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