In the manner of Richard Holmes’s Footsteps, Julia Blackburn’s story of John Craske is as much autobiography as biography, as much about the hunt for information as the processed results of the search. The facts of John Craske’s life are briefly told: born in Norfolk in 1881 into a fishing family, he suffered some sort of mental and physical breakdown while training with the army in 1917 and for the remaining 25 or so years of his life dodged in and out of invalidism, sometimes bedridden for long periods, sometimes out fishing with his brothers, sometimes working as a fish merchant and perpetually supported and nursed by his devoted wife, Laura.
At some point in his enforced idleness he began to make toy boats, then graduated to painting the sea and ships — on odd bits of wood and paper, on chairs, walls, shutters and boxes. As illness made painting more difficult, he turned to embroidery and stitched away at the same maritime subjects.
The toymaking, painting, sewing fisherman acquired something of a local reputation and came to the attention of the poet Valentine Ackland, her lover Sylvia Townsend Warner and, through them, galleries in Aldeburgh, London and America. Despite this wider audience, however, Craske’s work remains largely unknown and is appreciated only by a small circleof admirers.
Julia Blackburn’s oblique approach to this melancholy narrative is to dish out the facts sparingly while shooting off at tangents to illuminate the feel of the life and the calibre of the works of art. Nothing here is wasted: the deeply moving events in the author’s own life, encounters with eccentric shop-owners, dotty ladies in cafés, a healing plumber, Einstein’s brief stay in Norfolk, lists, poems and miscellaneous bits of other people’s writing. There are blind alleys and red herrings as well as things more obviously pertinent to the main story — a discussion with an endocrinologist, a conversation with a prisoner fired with enthusiasm for embroidery, a fishing expedition from Great Yarmouth — all gathered up and engagingly illustrated to produce a cleverly crafted book that is far more than the obvious sum of its parts.
‘It cam on ti snow and it Blue a havey Gale,’ Julia Blackburn quotes a friend of Craske’s, writing with all the immediacy of an Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘and we could not see the lngth of the ship it was a night it was terrible rugh youy could here the see roaring in the darknes.’ This is the world that the bedbound Craske imaginatively inhabited.
The glaring parallel with the Cornish artist Alfred Wallis is hinted at but not explored — one of a number of deliberate ‘absences’ in the book — and this is probably a wise decision. Craske seems extraordinarily talented and deserves to stand by himself. To call him naïve is to miss the point. As an artist friend of the author said: ‘He really knew how a boat sits on the water, how it moves, what the wind feels like, the swell of the waves, the danger, the isolation.’ The deft dab of the brush or the exquisite bundling of the thread in his work are the indications of a natural talent that can make his ships plunge through boiling seas or bend to the wind in lonely isolation before immense skies.
A huge embroidered panorama of the evacuation from Dunkirk, seen in his mind’s eye from a description in the newspaper, remained poignantly unfinished at his death. The exhibition of his work that the author promises in Norwich next year, together with this truly delightful book, should rightly bring this gentle artist’s name to a wider public.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £20 Tel: 08430 600033. Honor Clerk is a curator at the National Portrait Gallery.