Mediterranean happiness: ‘ A Charmed Life’

Formulaic greetings launched the opening of this evocative, opulent exhibition in the British Museum about the painters, Ghika and John Craxton, and their great friend, the travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermour. Their lifelong Grecian friendship was recalled and honoured. Theirs, as the title of the exhibition affirms, was a charmed life. Then came the unexpected celebration: a third speaker, a national treasure in the words of an old ambassador standing beside me.

For seven or eight magical minutes we were held in thrall by the 92-year old, Sir David Attenborough. A friend of John Craxton, he spoke in those legendary undulating tones, pondering the theme of happiness. No notes, of course, his ageless eyes sweeping across the adulation of the audience, his verbs and weighted phrases as lyrical as ever. He reminded us of Craxton’s somewhat bleak work at the end of World War II and then the impact upon him of Greece and Crete. Immediately in the Mediterranean light he found happiness, and his critics in England chided him for it. Sir David invited us with twinkling eyes to ask ourselves if such criticism was not such a bad thing to sum up a life’s work.

No purveyor of the English language today can convey the pursuit of happiness with such passion and conviction. We were not just charmed; we knew we had been blessed by an alchemy of words. And with Sir David’s provocative thought lingering in our ears, the exhibition formally opened.

Nikos and Barbara Ghika with John Craxton, Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor,

at the terrace at Hydra, in 1958.

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