Exhibitions and events
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?

Ghika

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

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).

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994), The Black Sun. Oil on canvas, 1947. Courtesy of Rosie Alison. © Benaki Museum 2018.

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.

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (1906–1994), Pine trees in Poros. Oil on canvas, 1949. Benaki Museum –Ghika Gallery, Athens. © Benaki Museum 2018.

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.

Craxton

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

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.

John Craxton (1922–2009), Landscape with derelict windmill. Oil on board, 1958. Private collection. © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS.

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.

John Craxton (1922–2009), Still Life with Three Sailors. Tempera on canvas, 1980–1985. Private collection, UK. © 2018 Craxton Estate/DACS.

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.

Leigh Fermor

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

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.

The cover of Between the Woods and the Water on display in Room 5.

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

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.

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.

Charmed lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton,
Leigh Fermor
in Room 5.

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.

Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghika (left to right):
Self-portrait. Oil on canvas, 1942. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens.
Portrait of John Craxton. Oil on paper laid on canvas, 1949. Craxton Estate, London.
Portrait of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Oil on plywood, 1979. Benaki Museum – Ghika Gallery, Athens.
All © Benaki Museum 2018.

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.