Hearing about this book in a chance conversation seems very apt. Threads, by Julia Blackburn, in its journey to document the life of artist John Craske, picks up trails that are started by conversations, suggestions, and tangentially related topics. I wanted to find out more about this artist who, while gravely ill, conveyed his life, memories and artistic vision through needlework. It was very timely to read Threads while working on the Shoddy textile / disability art project – which also takes some haphazard and chance turns as it develops!
John Craske was a Norfok fisherman, born in Sheringham 1881, who became very ill at the onset of the First World War. In 1923 he began to paint the sea, boats and coastline and later began working in embroidery, which he could do from his bed. One of his great masterpieces is a tapestry called The Evacuation of Dunkirk, which he made after listening to what was happening on the wireless. One patch of sky within the tapestry remained unfinished, when Craske died in 1943.
What more is known comes mainly through letters between some influential supporters and Craske’s wife, Laura. He is an elusive presence, lightly tying together the different threads or themes of the book. This is in contrast to his work which was prolific and vibrant, typically dramatic images of fishing boats on rough seas. His scenes were no less dramatic or strong when he took up embroidery rather than painting.
Author Julia Blackburn tries to find out more about him and about his illness that left him in a “stuporous state” for sometimes months at a time. Possibly through diabetes, depression, anxiety or a combination of a number of conditions, he was seriously ill for much of his life, finding solace and inspiration in the sea, whether by living close to it or recalling it in dreams.
Is the cause of his illness important, though? Blackburn also explores other elements of his life and tries to get an idea of what that might have been like by exploring the area where he lived and talking to people who can give insights. His work is, of course, the central story and it was a real treat for me to discover Craske’s embroideries. He often created pieces from re-used materials and scraps. His work is a continuation of the tradition of sailors’ needlework.
Because Threads picks up other historic and contemporary narratives on its journey towards understanding John Craske, it introduced or re-introduced me to a number of other stories, organisations and artists that are relevant in some way to the Shoddy project. More on those in future posts. Following up on things to see where they lead, visiting people, places, museums and organisations, then sharing their stories in a way which values them all equally makes Threads a fascinating and at times moving read.
I enjoyed the description of an art workshop for disabled people that Julia Blackburn visited – she makes no mention of disability but describes and admires the artists’ work, their welcoming behaviour and approach to their craft. And my impressions through this book of how people regarded John Craske are overall similarly warm and admiring: people remembered him as clever and talented, if troubled, and (apart from some family tensions) think kindly of him.
Not surprisingly for someone in his situation (self taught, poor, unable to work for long periods, outside art circles), John Craske didn’t achieve great recognition for his work. There were a few quite well connected supporters / patrons which led to a few exhibitions and to sales of his work. Some questioned whether his work should be called art and his work wasn’t always taken care of. But this was work that he was compelled to do, that gave his life meaning. The importance of this comes through clearly – for John Craske and for Julia Blackburn herself – in Threads.
Threads by Julia Blackburn is published by Jonathan Cape.