“His work made life meaningful for him” – Threads by Julia Blackburn

tjb1John Craske is an artist few people will have heard of. Google his name and most of the results relate to this book. Even fewer people will have seen his work but Threads is a fascinating account of his life and a convincing argument for his importance. Craske was a fisherman who lived on the Suffolk coast, after suffering an illness (or a breakdown) in 1917 he turned to painting scenes of the sea and fishing life:

“John Craske, whose actual life was suspended by illness, continued to go to sea in his mind and in the images that floated through his mind.”

Craske left behind little documentary evidence of his life beyond the artworks that survive (and those appear to have often been shockingly treated by the curators of museums) but Julia Blackburn pieces together his biography from the memories of his family, letters left by the novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner and her own sense of identification with him. Threads is generously, and handsomely, illustrated with reproductions of Craske’s paintings and embroidery though anyone who reads this book will want to see Craske’s work for themselves. Julia Blackburn, like W.G. Sebald (in The Rings of Saturn), travels around East Anglia to trace Craske’s life and, like Sebald, tangents and digressions are to be enjoyed, especially the discovery of Albert Einstein’s weeks living in Cromer.

In memorialising John Craske’s life it is hard not to see Craske as a model for living:

“John Craske was not lonely or odd because he had his work and the dreams which fed into his work.”

Craske, an invalid in 1920s Suffolk, had a punk aesthetic. He had no training, and little education, and created his art on scraps of paper and stray pieces of wood (or the walls of his house if nothing else was available). The act of creating drove Craske, “his work made life meaningful for him.”

Always in the background of Craske’s life is his illness, “mental stupors” that rendered him almost comatose for weeks at a time. It was the dedicated care of his wife that allowed him to paint. Threads also contains a slowly developing portrait of Blackburn’s own marriage, movingly finding parallels between the Craske marriage and the Blackburns. Both husbands are artists and increasingly ill:

“a man finding strength in making images while having to negotiate the delicacy of his physical body.”

Was Craske a great artist? Even if you criticise Craske’s technique, his art enriched many lives (and isn’t that the point of art?). Threads is a remarkable appreciation of how the values of art can be at the centre of anyone’s life.

Any Cop?: Moving and inspiring, a guide to the art of a forgotten man that is, also, a celebration of how his art provides an example to live by.


James Doyle


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