Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn

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Reviewed by Victoria

It was from a friend that Julia Blackburn first heard about John Craske, a Norfolk fisherman who became a painter and an embroiderer when ill health made it impossible for him to undertake the hard, physical work he was used to. Blackburn’s friend, Emily (also a painter herself), knew only the barest bones of his story, but could tell her that he had been taken up by the writer, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and her partner, Valentine Ackland (who she said looked a lot like David Cameron and it’s disturbingly true). This conversation took place in Aldeburgh on the East Anglian coast, very close to where Julia Blackburn lived and to where John Craske himself had fished and painted. Intrigued and curious, she went to the Snape Maltings music centre where some of his work was stored, though not displayed. She found it in a poor condition, the victim of evident neglect. The young man delegated to show her the pictures said:

”There you are. I think they are wonderful,” in a voice that mixed triumph with despair because he clearly didn’t enjoy seeing them like this, so uncared for.

And Julia Blackburn was amazed by what she found:

I cannot begin to explain how much the pictures impressed me. They were images of the sea and boats on the sea and the coast seen from a boat, but they were also images of life itself and its precariousness and how we struggle to keep afloat and stay alive in the face of fear and uncertainty…. I remembered that Sylvia Townsend Warner had said that John Craske worked with the intensity of someone speaking under oath.

So began a long, complicated journey to uncover the remains of Craske’s work and biography that was more frustrating than productive, but revelatory in its own way. Craske is a missing artist, someone whose works were never properly collected and curated, his name one that has been left to fall into oblivion. What remains of his story is threadbare – and so Blackburn makes a virtue of those threads, weaving every loose end she follows into her tale, and discovering as she goes along that the net encompassing herself and her subject is more complex and surprising than she could have imagined.

The details of John Craske’s life are sparse. He was born in 1881 and from his early teens worked as a fisherman with his family, and then as a fishmonger. When the First World War broke out he signed up but fell ill with a virus during training. This was the start of his health problems, described only as a persistent ‘stuporous state’. By 1917 he was so bad that he had been admitted to a mental hospital, unable to remember his own name. But John did have a guardian angel in his wife, Laura. Discharged from the hospital as ‘harmless’, she made it her life’s work to keep him as content and engaged with life as possible, first suggesting painting to him, and then teaching him the basics of embroidery. John’s health oscillated between poor and the fugue state that could swallow him for years at a time. But throughout their difficult and often impoverished life, Laura cared for him with constant devotion.

In 1927, Valentine Ackland was visiting East Anglia when she bought one of the little boats that Craske carved and sold for pin money. She came to his house and fell in love with his work. Together with Sylvia Townsend Warner and a wealthy young American woman, Elizabeth Wade White, with whom Valentine created an ugly and tempestuous love triangle, they promoted Craske’s work as much as they were able to in exhibitions and by word of mouth. Their money kept the Craskes afloat, and gave him what reputation he had. Critics were kind and patronising: ‘the ship pictures by Mr John Craske are definitely – if crudely – works of art,’ The Times said. He was ‘an untrained man of the people, who practises art from sheer enthusiasm,’ said The Daily Mail. Fortunately, this gloriously produced volume is full of colour pictures of his paintings and embroideries and they are stunning and strangely disturbing. Even looking at them in this secondhand way, you are overwhelmed by the impression of what it is to be on the sea.

Julia Blackburn’s book never quite fills in the gaps in its knowledge. What was the mysterious illness Craske suffered from? It seems to have been untreated diabetes, though of course it sounded exactly like chronic fatigue syndrome to me (which made me wonder what the links between those two illnesses might be). She locates many of his works but far from all of them. But this really doesn’t matter. It’s the story of a quest to fish something precious and half-forgotten out of the wide sea of artefacts, and the story of how art can provide great consolation during the casual tragedies of life. The writing is beautiful – delicate, vivid and elegiac, which perfectly suits the life of the man and conveys to the reader a sense of searching for absence which is quite hypnotic. I felt like I was bearing witness; to works that should never have been lost, and to the process of bringing Craske back into the national consciousness where he belongs. It was a powerful and unusual reading experience.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Julia Blackburn, Threads; The Delicate Life of John Craske (Jonathan Cape: London, 2015). 978-0224097765, 352 pp., hardback.

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