Friday 6 October 2017

Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor

Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor,

at the Benaki Museum, Vasilissis Sofias, Athens.

The exhibition presents the friendship of artists Nikos Hatzikyriakos-Ghika and John Craxton and the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, from the early years of their acquaintance in the mid-1940s to the end of their lives. Through the display of works of art, extracts from texts, letters, manuscripts and photographs, we follow their relationship and their artistic and literary careers, with their love of Greece as the common denominator. 

The text in italics is extracts from Patrick Leigh Fermor's travel books on Greece or from letters he wrote to friends.

John Craxton, Three Dancers, Poros, 1953-54, (oil on canvas)

 John Craxton, Self-Portrait, 1946

 John Craxton, Galatas, 1947, (oil on canvas laid on board)

John Craxton, Portrait of Eleni, 1947, (oil on paper laid on canvas)

 John Craxton, Chestnut Roaster, 1956, (watercolour on paper)

 Mending the Nets, 1953, (oil on canvas)

 John Craxton, Fish Market, Poros, 1952 (pastel on paper laid on card)

John Craxton, Carnival Horse, 1954, (oil on canvas)


Patrick Leigh Fermor in Ithaca, 1946

'It was midsummer in that glaring white town, and the heat was explosive... The stone flags of the water's edge, where Joan and Jan Fielding and I sat down to dinner, flung back the heat like a casserole with the lid off. On a sudden, silent decision we stepped down fully dressed into the sea carrying the iron table a few yards out and then our three chairs, on which, up to our waists in cool water, we sat round the neatly laid table-top, which now seemed by magic to be levitated three inches above the water. The waiter, arriving a moment later, gazed with surprise at the empty space on the quay; then observing us with a quickly-masked flicker of pleasure, he stepped unhesitatingly into the  sea, advanced waist deep with a butler's gravity, and saying nothing more than 'dinner-time', placed our meal before us - three beautifully grilled kephali piping hot, and with their golden brown scales sparkling'.

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, Chairs and Tables by the Sea, 1948

John Craxton, Hotel by the Sea, 1946, (oil on canvas)

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, Hydra, 1939

'For the houses, as though in protest against the masterless swirl of rock, are cubic, solid, and severe. The great ones are built of regular blocks of grey stone hewn from the mountain, and the dark windows are barred like those of dungeons. The others are a blinding white, and they might have been sliced and squared out of goat's cheese. The houses and the rocks alike are thrust into the air, an infinity of sharp and light-reflecting facets'.

John Craxton, Landscape Hydra, 1960-61, (filler and tempera on board)

'I think with immense nostalgia and gratitude of Hydra, where most of my book will have been written - in fact 1954-55 is a great etape dans mas vie. I didn't need to tell you both how we loved it and how valuable and important it was, because I think you know. I really felt I had to vanish from the raw material of my book for a few months, like Niko into a cellar with his sketches'

John Craxton, Olive Oil Can, 1955, (oil on board)

'The Ghika house was built in the late 18th century by the painter's great-great-great-grandfather. It lies above and beyond the town at the end of the precipitous accent by mule or on foot... A saddle of rock to the east, covered with white houses which flow down and fill a ravine that sinks to the shore, conceals the main town'.

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, Trellis and Shadows, 1955, (oil on canvas)


'Kardamyli was unlike any village I had seen in Greece. These houses, resembling small castles built of golden stone with medieval-looking pepper-pot turrets, were topped by a fine church. The mountains rushed down almost to the water's edge with, here and there among the whitewashed fishermen's houses near the sea, great rustling groves of calamus reed ten feet high and all swaying together in the slightest whisper of wind. There was sand underfoot and nets were looped from tree to
tree. Whitewashed ribbed amphorae for oil and wine, almost the size of those dug up in the palace of Minos, stood by many a doorway'.

Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor had a house built in Kardamyli. In 1967, the house opened its doors. 'So our carefully placed shelves soon filled up with dictionaries, lexicons, encyclopaedias, concordances, bibliographies. Loeb Classics, Pleiade editions, Oxford Companions, Cambridge histories, anthologies, books on painting, sculpture, architecture, birds, beasts, fishes, reptiles, plants, trees, and stars, and everything seemed perfect'.

John Craxton, Reclining Cat, 1961, (oil on canvas)

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, Kardamyli, 1967, (pencil on paper)


 'We lived in the house very happily with no electricity and no telephone and no road for a year or two. It was like pre-war Lemonodassos [on the island of Poros] and it was wonderful'.

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, Kardamyli, (watercolour and ink on paper)

'The view is an enormous sweep of sea, bounded by the headlands, off the right hand one of which, due west, is the island with the castle on it... Through high clefts one gets glimmering grey glimpses of the Highest Taygetus. But nothing overpowers or impends. There is not a house in sight. Nothing but rocks, trees, mountains and sea. It's called Kalamitsi'.


'Crete gave my retrogressive hankerings their final twist. In spite of the insular pride of the inhabitants, their aloofness from the mainland and the idiosyncrasy of their dialect and their customs, this island is an epitome of Greece. Greek virtues and vices, under sharper mountains and a hotter sun, reach exasperation point'.

John Craxton, Two Greek Dancers, 1951, (oil on canvas)

John Craxton, Portrait of a Man, 1998, (mixed media on paper)

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, Portrait of John Craxton, 1949, (oil on paper laid on canvas)

John Craxton, Still Life with Three Sailors, 1980-85, (tempera on canvas)

John Craxton, Cretan Cats, 2003, (tempera on canvas)

John Craxton, Greek Head, 1950-51, (oil on canvas)

'The rocky southern shores of Crete advance in luminous salient and recede again in dark grottoes where the goats' eyes flash; roofed by the asbestos-white limestone sierras of Sphakia. Those toppling iconographic crags are the world of minotaurs and the blood feud, of thorns and twisted goat-horns and fierce epics and daemonic energy, and they can never have been more convincingly presented'.

John Craxton, Cretan Gorge, early 1970s (tempera and volcanic dust on board)

'Nowhere in Greece is the quality of leventeia so clearly manifest. This attribute embraces a range of characteristics: youth, health, nerve, high spirits, humour, quickness of mind and action, skill with weapons, the knack of pleasing girls, love for singing and drinking, generosity, capacity to improvise mantinades [Cretan verse couplets] ... and 'flying like a bird' in the quick and violent dances. It is universal zest for life, the love of living dangerously and a readiness for anything'.

John Craxton, Wild Goat, 1947, (oil on wood)

John Craxton, Landscape with Derelict Windmill, 1958, (oil on cardboard)

'For many years, in a number of Craxton's pictures, goats have stolen the scene. Unlike sheep, they are loners; they represent independence and escape, and in these georgic paintings they are striving to wrench themselves away - possibly it has got about that their throats are to be cut. But in all his previous pictures when no biped is present, the goats have succeeded in making a break for it'.

John Craxton, Shepherd 1, 1984, (tempera on canvas)

'The olive groves are amazing at this moment - asphodel, Adonis Blood, and huge mauve anemones, show-drifts of daisies, celandines, dwarf geranium, crocuses, violets, and right up, at Vaidenitsa monastery, where we all picnicked yesterday, snowdrops and primroses in the strea-side moss. One almost faints....'

John Craxton, Fisherman with Basket, 1951, (pen and ink on paper)

Kerkyra, (Corfu):

An old olive press at Sinies, on Corfu, was to be the new haven for meeting for the three friends. The estate, with its house, was transformed by the Ghikas into an idyll, with internal and external courtyards, with fountains and covered verandas, nestled among cypresses and olive trees.

'Peggy Ashcroft would be there, piecing a poem together by memory, Dadie Rylands reading aloud, Freddie Ayer correcting a gallery proof, Stephen Spender recounting his travels in China, or John Craxton with charcoal and cartridge paper under a vine trellis; and against this backcloth for the Tempest or Midsummer Night's Dream, there was feasting and talk and much laughter far into the night'.

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, Deserted Beach with Boats II, 1976, (oil on canvas)

John Craxton, Horse and Rider, 1962, (watercolour and gouache with red pencil on board)

'The great millstones may have fallen as silent as the grinders in the Book of Ecclesiastes, but the sturdy walls of an old olive press and its outbuildings were still intact along the spine of a wooded Corfu headland. Behind it to the west rose Mount Panrokrator... Silent except from birds, this leaf-fringed legend was the very scenery of Prospero's island and A Midsummer Night's Dream'.

Nikos Harjikyriakos-Ghika, Fountain in the Garden on Corfu, 1979, (oil on canvas)

'Much of the summer life is lived on the great north terrace... Afternoon has a background whisper of scythes swishing through the long grass... Memories of lamplit reading aloud haunt the terrace - 'Just one more chapter before bedtime!' ... Nothing in these woods and valleys, or in the spirit of the house, breaks the spell of the last scene of the Tempest and the hounds of Theseus and Hippolyta are only just out of earshot'.

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