John Craske’s embroidered life

Alexandra Harris in TLS:

BoatJohn who? Craske’s obscurity is part of the subject of this book, but surely his name will be remembered now that his paintings and astonishing embroideries are available to us in the abundant reproductions that fill these pages, and now that Julia Blackburn has empathetically filled out a possible life story from the sparse but striking threads of evidence that remain. Craske was a Norfolk fisherman too ill to fish. As a young man he worked with his brothers, crabbing and longshore cod fishing, until 1905 when he started a fish shop in Dereham. When the war came, his efforts to enlist were rejected on unknown medical grounds – until he at last received a commission in 1917, promptly suffered what his wife Laura called “a relapse”, fell into a “stuporous state”, and was sent to Norwich Asylum rather than to the war. The remaining twenty-six years of his life might have been spent in one asylum or another, had it not been for the determination of Laura, who found a small house where they could live on almost nothing, with daylight coming into the cramped room where Craske lay month after month in bed.

In that bed he became an artist. In the periods of lucidity between “stupors” (“have I been away again?”, he would ask), he carved and painted model boats, made oil paintings of tossed vessels at sea, and, from 1929, made some of the most ambitious embroideries of the twentieth century. In his “Panorama of the Norfolk Coast”, a rainbow arcs over the muds flats where channels of water glint between moored boats, and a pink haul is unloaded from a vessel named in tiny stitches THE PRAWN. There is a stiff breeze blowing. We gauge the precise speed and motion of the breakers in the distance; a waiting fisherman, bundled up in waterproofs, sits with his back to the sea in the little sheltering alcove of an upturned boat. Every detail is honoured, and there is pleasure, too, in the abstract design of it.

More here.