John Craxton, Head of a Greek Sailor (1940)

Hidden Treasures from the Camden Collection

For the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK and Wales, Tate Britain launches the first exhibition on the subject of queer British art to be held in a British national museum.

Queer British Art 1861–1967 (5 April – 1 October 2017) explores the period between 1861 and 1967 when the death penalty was abolished for sodomy and private homosexual acts between consenting adults were finally, albeit partially, decriminalised. This caused tremendous shifts in the cultural organisation and perspectives of gender and sexuality in society. John Craxton’s painting Head of a Greek Sailor, included in the exhibition at Tate, is on loan from the Camden Art Collection. It is an example of the reactions to this shift in the sexual landscape by artists, collectors and consumers. It explores the sailor as a common object of homoerotic desire against a backdrop of an Arcadian dream, together illustrating a hope for a better future. Arcadia is defined by the dictionary as a mountainous region of ancient Greece, traditionally known for the contented pastoral innocence of its people, or a real or imaginary place offering peace and simplicity.

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John Craxton, Head of a Greek Sailor (1940)

John Craxton was an English painter often associated with the Neo-Romantic movement, although he preferred to be classified as an Arcadian. Raised in a bohemian family – the epitome of happiness, as described by some – he studied art in Paris in 1936, but had to revert to London after the war broke out. He attended Goldsmiths College where he met Lucian Freud and had his first solo show at the Swiss Cottage Café in 1942. His work often focused on landscapes and pastoral figures of shepherds or poets; scenes he had in fact never witnessed first-hand.

‘They were a means of escape and a sort of self-protection. […] I wanted to safeguard a world of private mystery.’ (Emmanuel Cooper, The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and Art in the Last 100 Years in the West, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986).

After the war he spent a lot of time in Greece, where he would paint Arcadic scenes featuring shepherds, sailors and landscapes. He moved to Crete permanently in 1970 and, after his death, was survived by his long term partner Richard Riley.  

The story goes that Craxton met this beautiful sailor in a bar in Poros. The painting reflects the long history of sailors as objects of homoerotic desire. Craxton’s sensual style, infused with Cubist elements and with the ‘colors of Byantian mosaics’ (Mathilda Bathurst, Apollo Magazine, access date 04.01.17) effectively put pleasure and vision over the cold reality of a post-war world in which LGBT+ right went largely unrecognised.

The nationwide attention to the abolishment of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 is a reminder of the oppression suffered by many from the LGBTQ+ community. It also raises the importance of challenging inequalities that still exist today. Craxton’s portrait shows us not only the face of a strange, beautiful man, it also shows us the face of longing for recognition; by a lover as well as the world we inhabit.

The exhibition Queer British Art 1961-1967 at Tate Britain will run until 1 October 2017.

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The Camden Art Collection comprises a rich variety of works dating from the late 1950s to today, by artists who have had a strong connection to the borough, including Sandra Blow, Jean Cooke, John Bratby, Maggie Hambling, Derek Jarman, Prunella Clough, Terry Frost, Adrian Heath, Wilhemina Barns-Graham and limited edition works on paper by David Hockney and Patrick Caulfield. For more information visit our online archive.

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