John Craxton was a revered English painter. As a young boy he went to Clayesmore school in Dorset and then studied art in Paris during 1939 until the outbreak of World War II. During the war he worked and exhibited in London. When the war was finished he chose to travel around Europe, visiting Switzerland, Istanbul, Spain, Italy and Greece. As well as a draftsman and painter, Craxton was also a designer. In 1951 he was appointed the set designer for a ballet and for a production at the Royal Opera House in 1968. Craxton was elected a Royal Academician in 1993.
Knowlton Church, Dorset, was built during the 12th century and is situated at the centre of a Neolithic henge earthwork. According to English Heritage, which owns the site, the unusual pairing of the henge and the church symbolises the transition from worship rooted in paganism to one based upon the Christian doctrine. The church was built from stone and flint, with the line of its roof remaining clearly visible on the eastern facade. The church was in use until the 17th century. This scene has served as inspiration for a number of artists, including John Piper (1903-1992).
Craxton’s image picks up on the resonance between the 12th century church and the much older Neolithic henge ‘mound’ that it was built upon. He delineates three main layers within this drawing: namely the bold, dark strokes of the henge; the finer, more illustrative quality to the church itself and finally the foreboding expanse of the sky above; a mesmerising mix of wash and swirling ink. The rapidity of the image’s construction, hinted at by the character of his mark-making, bestows an atmosphere of ethereality — only appropriate for a site shaped by such extraordinary sacred history.
There is another image of Knowlton Church by Craxton, which is now part of a private collection. This picture is of a marginally different view to the first and is powerfully rendered in contrasting inks and highlighted with flashes of electric blue, canary yellow and brilliant white. It is not easy to differentiate the order in which the two were executed, but it is possible to argue that the more colourful image was created first, before Craxton moved a few degrees to the right to complete a more refined version. With his second image, Craxton is arguably more interested in depicting the detail of the ruins and nuance of the distant landscape, in a more controlled way and purposeful way.
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