Charmed lives in Greece
The Museum’s new exhibition in Room 5 brings together the lives and works of three artists – the painters Niko Ghika and John Craxton, and the writer Patrick (‘Paddy’) Leigh Fermor. But who were these men, and why is there an exhibition devoted to them at the British Museum?
Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994), was the son of Admiral Alexandros Hadjikyriakos and of Eleni Ghika. He first took art lessons from Konstantinos Parthenis and in 1923 he left for Paris to study at the Académie Ranson. At 21 he had his first solo exhibition in Paris where he remained until 1934. His friends there included Le Corbusier, George Seferis, and the art critics Christian Zervos and Stratis Eleftheriadis (Tériade). In Athens he played a central role in the publication of the journal Τρίτο Μάτι (Third eye).
He painted a series of works inspired by the spectacular environment of the island of Hydra and his ancestral home there – among them the atmospheric Black Sun (1947) and the stunning Wild Garden (1959). He travelled around Greece – Poros, Crete, Kardamyli, Santorini – painting works such as Pine trees in Poros, Plants and Trellises, and Mystras – while the landscape of Corfu inspired many of the works of his later period.
In 1961 he married Barbara Hutchinson. A member of the Academy of Athens and an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Ghika held 46 one-man shows in Athens, Paris, London, New York and elsewhere. He donated his home in Athens and his personal collection of works to the Benaki Museum, which opened the Ghika Gallery in 1991.
Born into a large, musical, Bohemian family in London, John Craxton (1922–2009) was a nomad from the start. He attended numerous schools briefly, and never secured a formal qualification in his life, not even in the art that obsessed him. A wartime friend of Lucian Freud and Graham Sutherland, he found youthful fame as a leading Neo-Romantic artist (though he always rejected the label) but felt trapped in England.
An escape to Greece in 1946 brought liberation – for the next six decades he revelled in the light, life and landscapes of the Aegean. He had such a good time, living cheaply and very sociably, that many doubted he was working. In fact, he poured his Greek life into his pictures.
His art matured from a romantic affinity with William Blake and Samuel Palmer, to a semi-Cubist style indebted to Picasso and Miro – as shown by his first Greek composition Hotel by the Sea – and finally to a reworking of Byzantine mosaics in the 1980s masterpiece Still Life with Three Sailors.
Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915–2011) had a rather disturbed childhood, often separated from his parents. He attended King’s School Canterbury from which he was expelled following an innocent friendship with the daughter of a local tradesman. In 1934 he set off in search of adventure on a long walk across Europe, from Rotterdam to Constantinople, described more than 30 years later in his masterpieces A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.
His war service was with the Special Operations Executive in Crete. After the war he worked for a short time in Athens at the British Institute, and travelled extensively in and outside Greece. In the 1960s he settled with his wife Joan near Kardamyli in the Mani (southern Peloponnese) in a house he designed himself. It became a haven for the Leigh Fermors and their many friends. He was knighted in 2004, and died in 2011 after what he called ‘a life of great happiness’.
Bringing them together
Why did we bring these three men together in an exhibition? The ties that bind them are Greece, its landscapes, and its way of life – and how each was inspired by this, and their friendship. They met at the end of the Second World War and soon, and lastingly, became close friends. The exhibition is therefore an exercise in collective biography as in art history. Apart from the works of art and the evocative texts, the exhibition includes personal letters, photographs (particularly by Joan Leigh Fermor), exhibition catalogues, dedications, visitors’ books, all reflecting the charm of their life in Greece.
The exhibition follows their work in a chronological framework, divided into sections built around the place where they lived – Hydra, Kardamyli, Crete and Corfu. Leigh Fermor and Craxton spent time in Ghika’s ancestral home on Hydra, Kardamyli was where the Leigh Fermors lived and the Ghikas and Craxton visited, Craxton’s home with his studio overlooking the sea was in Crete, and the Ghikas moved to Corfu after their house on Hydra burnt down. Each section is illustrated by the artistic works of Ghika and Craxton. Leigh Fermor is represented largely through his writings, extracts of which are shown on wall panels.
In curating this show, our aim was to capture the spirit of this long and remarkable friendship which developed in spectacular surroundings across Greece. For visitors who are already familiar with the protagonists, their artworks and their writings, the exhibition will reveal more elements of their personalities through photographs, letters and dedications, quite a few of them presented for the first time. However, we hope that the show will convey the magic of a whole era in Greece to everyone who visits – that it will describe the charm which filled the lives and inspired the work of these three men.
You can find out more about the trio in this video:
Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor is on display in Room 5 until 15 July 2018.
Supported by the A. G. Leventis Foundation. Organised with the A. G. Leventis Gallery. In collaboration with the Benaki Museum and the Craxton Estate.
Evita Arapoglou is an art historian, author on Ghika, and curator of the A. G. Leventis Gallery.
Ian Collins is an author and the biographer of John Craxton.
Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith is a historian, author and former diplomat.
Ioanna Moraiti is head of the Benaki Museum Archive – Ghika Gallery.