As a foreigner resident in Britain, I have always been fascinated by the way the English ‘Public School’ system has shaped that collapsing area between lifestyle and survival. In the British Harrowian case, it is constructed upon the dialectical relationship between procrastination and the humanistic notion of ‘otium’. In Ancient Rome, Pliny defined ‘otium’ as the negation of ‘neg-otium’. While in the former, man cultivates himself for leisure; in the latter, he just makes money. This is why ‘otium’ is the realm of the cultured wealthy ones who can afford to learn about art (for example) instead of having to make money. This very clear differentiation gets messy these days by a Public School system that allow class families to buy for their children’s the accent and the attitude that he can deploy in order to make the right contacts and earn more money. This creates a paradoxical and, I would say, ironic situation in which the difference between ‘otium’ and ‘neg-otium’ is highlighted while being erased at the same time.
The world of contemporary art has been a place where this sort of confusion has become increasingly evident because people (with posh english accents and expensive education) could go to work in an investment bank form 9 to 5 and at 6 meet their girlfriends and friends (also from school) for a ‘soiree’ at an art gallery. The problem with this scheduling is that, by its own nature, negates ‘otium’ and therefore, style. In other words, the contemporary art world and the posh guys and ballerinas are, by definition, not ‘it’ but it is that contrived nature which fuels British (non pop) culture.
I got acquainted with Paddy Leigh Fermor’s work before going on holiday with Jean Marc Garzon and Elly Ketsea to Mani in Greece. They are a delightful but rather faked couple that finds pleasure in the construction of their own identity through that conflation of Harrowian humour and the urgency that the need to pay the rent entails. He works as a trader and she used to work as a sales person at Lisson Gallery and, at that point, they were my friends. It was before our holidays together when Jean Marc gave me as a gift Paddy’s book “Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponese’ which is illustrated by Leigh Fermor’s life long friend, John Craxton RA who is currently the subject of a very dull and pointless exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (‘A World of Private Mystery: John Craxton RA’; until April 21st).
Paddy’s book is that posh english mix of exaggerated and un-even humanist erudition and procrastination which with his friend Craxton they transformed into a way of life. Artemis Cooper for Apollo Art Magazine says: ‘John once said that ‘the most beautiful sound in the world is of people talking over a meal’. Born in 1915, Paddy was the elder of the two. Having scraped his School Certificate at a crammer in London, his parents hoped he would embark on a career but all he wanted was to write. He was 18, and rather than look for a job, he decided to walk across Europe instead. It was, he wrote, ‘my first independent act, and the first sensible one’.
John was the fourth of six children, born in 1922 into a highly musical and artistic family who encouraged his precocious talent for drawing and paintings. Sponsored by his patron, margarine tycoon Peter Watson he made a life with his paintings until he became a war hero in Crete where he stayed after the war ended and then moved to the Kardamilyi, near Sparta. The Fitzwilliam’ show is organised around his book covers for Patrick Leigh Fermor and in particular for his book on Mani where John Craxton decided to live and where he eventually died. The top half of the design is dominated by the book’s title, ‘MANI’, written in huge black letters. Below that, light streams from a great all seeing eye (the sun?) suspended above a group of towers, behind which is the sea. This flat yet vertiginous landscape shows how profoundly John was influenced by the work of Nikos Ghika, one of the greatest Greek painters of his generation. There is a cubistic drive in this design which might owe something to dada but the quality is certainly uneven. Craxton’s images are stylistic pastiches that can only justify as ‘the practice of a bon vivant’ and can only be appreciated in the context of public school educated post-Victorian melancholy. I don’t get the point of that show and why Apollo Magazine titled its review as ‘Times of Gods’. Anyway. That’s that! Just a thought.