On April 11th, 2015, I read Rachel Campbell-Johnston's review of THREADS by Julia Blackburn in the Times and I bought the book as soon as I possibly could. It was a volume I had to have in my possession, on my shelf at once, and when I got it, I dropped every other book that I was reading and started it immediately. To say this was a pleasure is an understatement. In every possible respect (production, paper, cover, illustrations, and above all the text itself) this book is a thing of beauty. You need to pick it up and touch the smooth pages and feel for yourself the heft and weight of it.
More than anything else, though, it was the subject that drew me. I am interested in artists who have no training, and I love seascapes of every kind. Also, I am fascinated by embroidery in all its manifestations (see the History Girls post I wrote after a trip to Bayeux) and I support the charity Fine Cell Work who give male prisoners a chance to express themselves creatively and in the process find some measure of rehabilitation.
When I read about John Craske, I was quite determined to go and see the exhibition that Julia Blackburn put together in Norwich.
The book details her search through the obscurer parts of Norfolk to find out what she could about this amazing artist who spent much of his life in a small cottage first painting images of the sea on every imaginable surface and then embroidering the most astonishing art on to a piece of cloth stretched on to a frame. I'm afraid that I failed in this ambition and the illustrations in this post come from my amateur photographs of pages of my book. I went to the wrong place....the website was ambiguous to say the least and directed me and my companion on the trip, Helen Craig, to a place which was shut in a way that looked as though it had no hope of ever opening again. There was no poster advertising the exhibition anywhere in Norwich and the kind folk we asked at the Cathedral knew nothing about it.....I feel sad to have missed it, and will treasure my book even more. I live in hope that the exhibition, which finished too soon for me to revisit, moves to somewhere else.
Craske, born in 1881, was a fisherman from a family whose lives were bound up with the sea. It was Craske's natural habitat and his whole life was spent on it, beside it and depicting it in paint and thread. He fell ill at the age of 36, and from then on, he described himself as being in a 'stuporous state.' From 1923 onwards, he painted the sea until he could no longer stand. The embroidery happened when painting became too difficult for him. Valentine Ackland, and her lover, Sylvia Townsend Warner, discovered him and championed him and that provided some money at least. Some people in the thirties (Peter Pears, for instance) were aware of him, and thought highly of him, and there is one newspaper cutting reproduced in Threads, but he never became fashionable, unlike his contemporary, Alfred Wallis of Cornwall. Craske's devoted wife looked after him. Her name was Laura and she cared for him till the end of his life. The review by Claire Harman in the Guardian provides a good overview of his life and a wonderful description of the book, and I do urge you to read it. I'm grateful to Sally Prue for pointing it out to me.
Blackburn is a wonderful writer. Her account of how she looked for Craske and uncovered the details of his life reminds me very much of W.G.Sebald's Rings of Saturn. She doesn't stick to the main biographical thrust of the narrative but wanders in and out of many places, meeting strange people and seeing wondrous things. You want to make notes to prompt yourself to follow her on the journey she took. I have a whole notebook full of leads to chase up one day. Meanwhile, an exhibition in the gallery of Norwich University of the Arts is a good start to getting Craske's name to a greater public, though it's disturbing that so little sign of the show was visible in Norwich. This seems spookily of a piece with his invisibility throughout his life, and points to a flower that's born to blush unseen, but that's not quite true. I'm sure LOTS of admirers have visited the gallery and enjoyed his work first hand and the hope is that the word will keep spreading and that more people will become aware of this amazing and almost forgotten artist's life and work.
By the end of Threads, you know about Craske, but you also know about Julia Blackburn. Her husband, the sculptor Herman Makkink, dies suddenly and she becomes a widow. The way she describes widowhood touched me very much. I felt she'd expressed much of what I felt when I lost my husband, in 2013. She was urged to go on working by her late husband, and it is the work, she says, which ensures that life goes on: that and the birth of a grandchild. Blackburn has gone on working in great style with this book about Craske, restoring some of her own life in the process of describing his.
And I, because I missed the exhibition, went to the Cathedral in Norwich. Any readers of this blog will know I have a love of cathedrals and this one is beautiful. I was glad to have had the opportunity to see it. I also saw a terrific collection of teapots in the Castle Museum....that's something I'd never have found in the normal course of events, and I felt quite Julia Blackburn-like about the pleasure of bumping into unexpected things. On the train home from Norwich, Helen Craig took a most beautiful photograph of the sky, which is as interesting as the sea, and I'm putting it up at the end of this post for everyone to share.
Please do not miss this book. The photo above shows the back of one of Craske's embroideries and, like the rest of his work, it's lovely. Threads is easily the best non-fiction book I've read in years and years: always accessible, never obscure, endlessly fascinating and full of the strangest and most unusual characters.