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Three get mellow in Greece: The charmed lives of Leigh Fermor, Craxton and Ghika

a painting of three Greek sailors around a table enjoying food and wine

John Craxton, Still Life with Three Sailors, 1980-85. Tempera on canvas. Private Collection, UK. © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

The British Museum is about to open the doors of the Greek houses of Patrick Leigh Fermor, John Craxton and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika for a vibrant exhibition full of light and conviviality

Looking at these photographs of long, leisurely lunches on sunlit terraces and the ever present glasses of wine and smouldering cigarettes, post war life on Greek shores was something of a Golden Age for Patrick Leigh Fermor, John Craxton and Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika.

The title of this British Museum display, Charmed Lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor, offers a pretty strong clue to the enviable level of conviviality the trio of artists forged for themselves in the second half of the twentieth century.

Exploring the output the gifted friends managed in the midst of this enviable lifestyle, the show brings together their artworks, photographs, letters and personal possessions to gently prize open the doors of their Hellenic homes to let in a little bit of Mediterranean light.

Although Leigh Fermor was the only one to don uniform, the three met at the end of the Second World War, becoming lifelong friends who each embraced the sights, sounds, colours and people of Greek life. Together they contributed to a golden age of Anglo-Greek artistic and literary collaboration.

a black and white photo of a group of people on a Greek terrace

Nikos and Barbara Ghika, John Craxton, Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor on the terrace of the Ghika house, Hydra 1958. Photo: Roloff Beny. © Library and Archives Canada. Reproduced with the permission of Library and Archives Canada.

a poster with a greek column, blue sky and sun with the words Greece

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, Study for a poster, 1948. Tempera on cardboard. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. © Benaki Museum 2018.

a painting of a sunset seen across olive groves and hills

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika. The Black Sun, 1947. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Rosie Alison. © Benaki Museum 2018.

To British audiences Leigh Fermor is probably the most famous; a largely self-educated scholar, polyglot and war hero whose various World War Two exploits with the Cretan resistance included the famous kidnap of the island’s Wehrmacht commander General Kreipe. He later became renowned for his brilliant, literary travelogues.

The first of these, a Time of Gifts, was an account of a journey he made on foot from Holland to Constantinople in the 1930s when he was just eighteen with a backpack full of classical poems and a few introductions from his well-connected family into the homes of the gentry.

The book, which was written in Greece when the author was older and wiser in his early sixties, brilliantly evoked the disappeared world of 1930s Europe and set the tone for many of the travel books that came in its wake.

But Greek painter and writer Ghika and the British painter Craxton are also now recognised as two of the most remarkable artists of the period. For fans of Craxton – and the English visionary landscapes he produced when he was associated with the Neo-Romantic period in British art – the chance to see his vibrant Mediterranean-flavoured work next to those of the great artist who clearly inspired him, is an added bonus.

For all three the time they spent together and the close bonds they forged shaped each other’s work for the rest of their lives.

a painting of a ravine bathed in blue light

John Craxton, Moonlit Ravine, early 1970s. Tempera and volcanic dust on board. © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS

a photo of two men with tops off discussing somethig around a desk

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika and Patrick Leigh Fermor at Ghika’s studio in Hydra, studying the manuscripts from Fermor’s book Mani, 1955. Benaki Museum – Photographic Archive, Athens. © Benaki Museum 2018.

a brightly coloured painting of chairs and tables

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, Chairs and tables by the sea, 1948. Oil on paper. Private Collection, Greece. © Benaki Museum 2018.

Highlights include Ghika’s atmospheric Black Sun and the enigmatic Still Life with Three Sailors by Craxton. Also featured is Craxton’s original artwork for the book covers of Leigh Fermor’s travel classics including A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Copious Quotes from the books and Leigh Fermor’s letters are also included the exhibition.

Many artworks and objects on display are on loan from the Benaki Museum in Athens, where the exhibition opened in 2017 and to whom Ghika bequeathed his house and works upon his death. The house on Corfu is now a museum.

Four sections focus on the four key locations where the men lived and spent time together: Kardamyli, Crete, Hydra, and Corfu.

Leigh Fermor and his wife Joan Leigh Fermor built their beautiful house in southern Greece at Kardamyli, which became a haven of good talk and hospitality for their many friends.

“A refuge of unique atmosphere and charm”

Craxton settled in a Venetian house on the Cretan harbour of Chania, where in between drawing and painting portraits of shepherds, sailors and scenes of local life, he became a famous local resident.

Ghika, who spent much of his young adult and artistic life in France developing a cubist and abstract approach, had an ancestral house on the island of Hydra which became an early gathering place for the trio. The surrounding town and rocky landscape was an important inspiration for a new phase in his painting, which began to assimilate folk and Byzantine art.

After the house was destroyed by a fire, Ghika and his wife Barbara transformed a farm with an old olive press into an idyllic home on the island of Corfu which was later described by Leigh Fermor as “a refuge of unique atmosphere and charm.”

All three artists lived long and fruitful lives; an advertisement – if one were needed – of the benefits of art, light, money, wine, good conversation and the highly beneficial charms of the Greek lifestyle.

a photo of a seated man in shorts smiling and smoking a cigarette

Patrick Leigh Fermor at Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1955. Benaki Museum – Photographic Archive, Athens. © Benaki Museum 2018.

a side profile photo of a man on a Greek balcony with a paint brush

John Craxton painting in Ghika’s house in Hydra in 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo: Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky.

a photo of an enigmatic bald man with a mustache smoking a cigarette

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika in Hydra, 1960. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens. Photo: Suschitzky. © The Estate of Wolfgang Suschitzky.

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor runs from March 8 to July 15 2018 in Room 5 at the British Museum. Admission is free. 

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