Charmed Lives British Museum review – “you can almost feel the sea breeze darting across your face”

Place is the essence of this exhibition, which celebrates the beauty of Greece and its impact on the life and work of three famous bon vivants

By Zoe Harris-Wallis

Located just off a discreet corridor on the ground floor of the British Museum is the entrance to its latest free exhibition, which focuses on the works and lives of three post-war artists: British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor; British Neo-Romantic artist and friend of Lucian Freud, John Craxton; and Greek artist Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika. Even the entrance itself is an indication of the winter sun the exhibition brings to this relentlessly chilly British weather, as the walls of the corridor are painted almost to the ceiling in a saffron hue, clashing with the luminous yellow of the high-vis jackets worn by security.

As you move into the exhibition you are certainly not cheated of the warmth promised by the glowing corridor that greets you. The colours of Greece clearly animated the brushes of these painters, whether it be the bold simplicity of opposite colours in Ghika’s study for a poster, or the use of a wide range of colours all in similar hues in Craxton’s ‘Still Life with Three Sailors’ or Ghika’s ‘Two Ruins, Mistras’. The latter is a particularly impressive landscape, using colour to create an abstract and impressionistic effect, contained within a geometric structure, a visual vocabulary learnt from his study of Byzantine art, as well as his teacher Konstantinos Parthenis who had contact with the Parisian avant-garde. Ghika’s contrasting use of colour and structure appears in other landscapes of Crete and Hydra, showing a blend of Cubist-inspired forms and his interest in what he called “Greekness”.

That landscapes from both artists form the majority of the exhibition is indicative of how place was so integral to these artists practices and works. Indeed, Patrick Leigh Fermor is predominantly known as a travel writer. To emphasise that place is at the heart of the exhibition, the works have been curated according to the different towns or regions in which the artists were shaped, such as Crete, where Craxton lived, Hydra, the location of Ghika’s family home, and Corfu, where Ghika built his own villa.

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It was Corfu in particular that became a haven for the three artists and their friends. A place in which they seemed to find a certain magic, Leigh Fermor described it as “a refuge of unique atmosphere and charm.” To help us experience what was so captivating about these locations – whether it be the Corfu’s connections to Ancient Greek mythology, or the ‘Mediterranean Light’ that Hydra was so famed for – the works are lit so that the viewer has a strong sense of being an outsider peeping through a window, shutters bleached by the sun, into this vibrant part of the world. This is achieved by keeping the exhibition in low light while the works are spot lit. Such a contrast between the space occupied by the viewer and the fully lit bright world of the image emphasises that the power of Craxton and Ghika’s works lie in their escapist nature. It reminds us that, while they do have the power to transport our imaginations to the world of quiet fishing villages and rugged landscapes which evoke the adventures of mythical heroes, physically we are in a gallery room in the centre of bustling London, where the sky is patchier and life moves faster.

The exhibition also works across discipline with a strong display of archival documents to emphasise the impact of the Greek islands on each of these creatives. These span from intimate letters between the three, greetings cards sporting Craxton’s designs, and the book covers that he designed for Leigh Fermor. We are also informed that Fermor’s wife, Joan, shared a love for animals with Craxton, influencing his addition of them to his artistic repertoire.

Indeed, some of this archival evidence is in fact more successful than certain paintings, in particular Craxton’s images of cats. His other portrayals of animals too strongly recall his influencers – for example, a painting of a goat from 1956, which is drawn in an almost join-the-dots fashion, is too similar to Picasso’s ‘The Bull’. Craxton’s landscape of Hydra from 1963 and his ‘Reclining figure with asphodels’, with their plant structures that closely follow those in works such as Matisse’s ‘La Gerbe’, are further examples of an artist who has not fully found his direction. Furthermore, his portraits of the local people are at risk of being too sentimental.

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It is not just that some of these paintings are too-close-for-comfort to the great artists we so protectively love, but also that they do seem to be limited in their wider significance. There is a very gentle nod to a sense of cosmology, which appears so regularly in Ancient Greek literature, in a few of the paintings, notably Ghika’s ‘Black Sun’ 1947, bursting with houses, trees, a huge hill and its titular sun.

In general, however, the view presented in the exhibition is narrow – something which might be expected from the three artists, all of whom who had the luxury to engage in the life of a bon-viveur. Yet this does not mean their works should be dismissed as simply the product of indulgent individuals, willing to enjoy their surroundings but never actually understand the experiences of those who inhabited them. They clearly all possessed a vivacity and zest that makes for seeing or reading. It’s the success with which the exhibition has captured this that for an hour or so you can almost feel the sea breeze darting across your face, and the gentle prickle of the classic British sunburn.