Book Review: Threads: the Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn

A non-fiction book based on the life of an unconventional life of a fisherman who suffered from ‘mental stupors’.

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Embroidery by John Craske depicting the Norfolk coast
Picture: Sylvia Townsend Warner Collection on loan from Aldeburgh

Julia Blackburn begins her wonderful book about the obscure Norfolk fisherman-turned-artist John Craske with an odd little joke. A soldier is asked where his rifle is. He replies: “It’s like this, sir. I went out into the courtyard and there was my rifle, in the sunshine, leaning against the wall – gone.”

It’s a perfect description of how Blackburn feels about her enigmatic subject. For although facts about his life are scarce and confused, she leaves her readers with a vivid connection to the sensory existence of this strange man.

I lay down her book without knowing the cause of the “mental stupors” that defined Craske’s life, or understanding his relationship to his complicated family, but feeling I had inhaled the cold salt of the East Anglian coastline from which he sailed when he was well, and run my fingers across the bright wool of the embroideries he made when he was not. His pictures of boats strike his biographer as “images of life itself and its precariousness and how we all struggle to keep afloat and stay alive in the face of fear and uncertainty”.

The bare facts are these: John Craske was born in 1881. From a long line of seafarers, he worked as a fisherman and then a fishmonger. Although he enlisted for the Great War, he did not leave England as he was struck by influenza during training. The virus is one of many possible causes for the mysterious “stupors” that subsequently laid him out for weeks and ultimately months at a time.

In 1917 he was admitted to seven different hospitals and finally transferred to Thorpe Mental Asylum near Norwich. By October 1918 he could not remember his name or age, though he said he missed his siblings. He was diagnosed a “harmless case” with a “brain abscess” and discharged into the care of his devoted wife, Laura: a shy, strong-bodied woman with a devout belief that God would provide small miracles when needed.

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It was Laura who suggested that her restless and unhappy husband try to soothe himself by making a picture. She took the calico her mother was saving for the Christmas pudding, tacked it onto a frame and he sketched a boat. “We found some wools,” she wrote, “and I showed John the way to fill it in.” He fell into stupors for months at a time, awaking to ask: “Have I been away again?” Then he “got back to stitches”.

In 1927, the poet Valentine Ackland came looking for one of the toy boats Craske sometimes made and fell in love with his work. Its “visual acoustics” became a passion of Ackland and her partner, the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. Their support led to a London exhibition in 1929 about which The Times’ critic declared: “the ship pictures by John Craske are definitely – if crudely – works of art”. After this flash of fame, he was forgotten again and died in 1943, while working on a 9ft embroidery depicting the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Blackburn is a novelist as well as the author of books about Napoleon, Goya and Billie Holiday, continually “drawn to people who are in some way trapped by their own circumstances”. She does not look to art historians for an understanding of Craske. Instead, she takes readers on visits to quirky, provincial museums in which his work is folded into boxes or slowly bleaching above old cabinets in the sun.

Scattering her book with photographs of Craske’s work and other curiosities, she includes us in her quest, describing curators and their emails, guesthouse breakfasts and the beach walks that help her make sense of the work.

She is philosophical and gossipy by turns. She muses about Einstein who also spent time on the Norfolk coast and believed in the importance of letting his thoughts drift with the tide. Then she describes the hurly-burly romances of Ackland, Townsend Warner and Dorothy Warren, who mounted Craske’s big exhibition. Warren, we learn, was “a dangerous sadist and all her relationships with both men and women involved blood and bondage and laudanum and a lot of shouting and screaming and throwing things about”.

She writes thoughtfully about men and embroidery – talking to an ex-convict who tells her: “There’s a biker with a long, goatee beard here who does fantastic stitches. It calms you down.” And she takes a copy of Craske’s picture of a listing trawler to a fisherman who says: “He’s been there … A wave is just a piece of energy that passes through a piece of water, but look at it. Look how he’s got it and he’s got the way the elements fuse. There’s no defining line at the horizon. It’s low pressure does that.”

When, nearing the end of the book, a personal tragedy befalls Blackburn, she follows Craske’s example and works through it. Like a fisherman “bettering” his net, she makes the connections she can then leaves us to admire the random, sparkling thoughts and emotions she has caught, allowing the strange energy of the unknown to pass through the holes like water. Gone.

Culled from the best of Telegraph 2015 non-fiction books and written by Helen Brown

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