John Craske was a fisherman from a family who had been fishermen for as long as anyone could remember. The sea was in his blood, he felt at home there, both when it was calm and breathing like a great beast resting, and also when it was wild and holding his life by a thread. But Craske was never a well man, and so he had to learn how to go to sea in his mind so he could paint and stitch pictures of maritime elements that mattered to him and that he understood.
John Craske was born in the town of Sheringham on the North Norfolk coast on 6th July 1881 where he joined a North Norfolk family with a long tradition of being associated with sea. John was the Grandson of Nathaniel and Elizabeth ‘Granny’ Craske, a staunch salvationist who lived to be 100 years of age and during her time she produced 12 children. Her eleventh child, Edward married Hannah Sare Dennis from North Walsham, Norfolk, in 1875. It was these two who were to be John Craske’s parents.
But times were indeed hard for fishing in and around Norfolk towards the latter part of the 19th century and presumably prospects were better further north; that was the direction taken by Edward and Hannah in 1876 when they moved to Grimsby. Their first son, Edward was born there soon after their arrival, followed by Robert Nathaniel in 1879. A further two years then passed before the family decided to return to Norfolk to live at Lower Sheringham. It was here where John Craske made his entrance, followed by a sister in 1883. Later the family moved yet again to Grimsby. where two more sons were born, between 1889 and 1896.
John Craske eventually put his schooling behind him when left his Board School in Grimsby to follow family tradition; he went to sea to become a deep sea fisherman. So commenced a period in his life which was to make a lasting impression on him; it was, in fact, to become almost a passion which was to dominate his artistic talent and output of paintings and embroideries in later years. But for the moment he fished alonside his two older brothers until their parents decided, in 1900, to return, with most of their children, to Sheringham. But times were still tough; tough enough to eventually convince John’s family to distance themselves from the sea altogether and move inland to East Dereham where, in 1905, his father opened a fishmonger’s shop. Father Edward ran the shop with his two sons, John and Edward, buying a daily supply of fresh fish from Lowestoft.
The Craske family tolled with its fishmongering business whilst the local fishing industry continued in its decline. Inperceptably, tourists began to take over, gradually moving in to enjoy the air, the newly built promenades and the more frequent train connections within Norfolk and to and from London. Tourists, by definition, did not have to work, instead they delighted in taking photographs of the fishermen who, to most outsiders, looked like becalmed wild tribesmen as they lolled against their boats, dressed with their high Cossack hats, tight Guernsey sweaters, heavy thigh boots with metal cleats and each with a distant gaze in their eyes that hoped for a better catch next time. None, it would seem, had enough money in their pockets to live on.
Then there was the Craske family’s strict Christian upbringing which saw them attending services at Dereham’s Salvation Army Citadel where in summer months John, in particular, took part in outdoor services held in the Market Place. On one particular occasion, a certain Miss Laura Augusta Eke came along and her attention was drawn to a tall young man standing on a soap box in the centre of the ring of Bandsmen and worshipers. He was dressed in a fisherman’s blue jersey, his black hair ruffled by a stiff summer breeze. Laura watched and listened as a noticeably nervous John Craske began to sing ‘Since Christ my soul from sin set free…………….’
John and Laura married on 22 July 1908, at the Primitive Methodist Chapel in Dereham, after which they went to live at Swanton Morley where John started a fish hawking round, serving the surrounding villages. He obtained two ponies which carried pannier baskets full of fish which were slung over their backs. It was a precarious existence which forced John to lead a very vigorius life, often working sixteen or seventeen hours a day. It was extremely rare for him to even take a half day off. On top of this, Swanton Morley lacked a railway station so, in order to make things easier for him to obtain daily supplies of fish from Lowestoft, he and Laura moved to North Elmham in 1909. From there, John continued to collect fish for his father’s shop and carried out all their fish curing and smoking. Then, in 1914, John and Laura moved back to Dereham and continued to carry out fish hawking business. Shortly afterwards, the First World War broke out.
John Craske was never strong and it is not certain whether, in 1916, he volunteered or was called up when conscription began. There was certainly doubts about his health for on two occasions when he attended medicals, he was classified as being C2 during his first visit then C3 subsequently. John gained exemption, however, some local people was said to have appealed to the authorities against exemptions and John received his call-up papers. It was also said at the time that the authorities were so desperate for men that they were taking on practically anyone. John formally joined the Army on 9 March 1917. That was fine as far as it went but the training process was to become John’s nemesis, from the point when reference was made to his “relapse”.
On the 7 April, Laura received news from Davidson Road War Hospital in Croydon that John has relapsed whilst recoving from influenza; three days later she received the news that he had an ‘abscess on the brain’ which left him prone to attacks of nervous collapse from which he would not recover. He no longer knew his own name or who he was, just that he missed his family, his brothers and he just wanted to go home. He could not even remember his age. Initially, John was diagnosed as being an imbecile and admitted to seven different hospitals before finally being transferred, in August, to Thorpe Mental Asylum near Norwich. Laura visited him on alternate days; then on 31 October 1918 he was discharged into her care; his health verdict being that he was ‘subject to harmless mental stupours’. Laura: a shy, strong-bodied woman with a devout belief that God would provide small miracles when needed. It was Laura, who came to collect him, having signed a declaration form saying that she would care for him – and care for him is what she did ever after.
It was Laura who first suggested that her restless and unhappy husband try to soothe himself by making a picture. It was said that she took the calico her mother was saving for the Christmas pudding, tacked it onto a frame and he sketched a boat. “We found some wools,” she wrote, “and I showed John the way to fill it in.” He fell into stupors for months, or even years at a time, awaking to ask: “Have I been away again?” Then he “got back to stitches”. Craske would regularly slip in and out of “a stuporous state” but still managed to eat and drink. Theories were inevitably expounded as to what was wrong with him, from diabetes to pituitary trouble; however, the most popular opinion was that he had depression with a “psychic neurotic basis”.
Then in 1920, John’s father died. This affected John so badly that he relapsed through shock and became confined to a wheelchair for a while; certainly until his GP, Dr Duigan, suggested a spell of recuperation by the sea, because “only the sea can save him”. Apparently, this was endorsed by an endocrinologist who, on hearing about this recommendation, said “Wise man, – the movement of the sea acts as a very good calmative for mental instability.” John and Laura rented a cottage, ‘The Pightle’ near the Blakeney estuary and were lent a boat, for which Craske, duely motivated, soon cut the sails for Laura to stitch them. Whenever the weather was kind the two would set off on the tide’s ebb and return with its flow. It would be three hours each way, drifting within the safe confines of an estuary rich with terns diving for sand eels, abundant dab being caught on hooks and where mud banks surrounded marsh wort, sea poppy and sea campion. Everything and everyone enjoying big skies and quiet days.
Craske gradually improved and more aware of his surroundings; he had become aware that the cottage was unsuitable as the living room floor was below street level and all he could see were the legs of people walking by. They returned to Dereham after 5 months but it was the moment when John said to Laura that he would like to paint a picture on the lid of an old bait box. It turned out to be a red-sailed lugger leaning precipitously to one side in a storm where the wind appeared to be scudding through the crests of the waves and creating an imaginary roar. From the bait box he went on to paint on anything he could find: cardboard, brown wrapping paper, mantelpieces and doors, jugs and teacups. Even when he and Laura had another spell by the sea, this time in the village of Hemsby further down the east coast, he still went on painting.
It was whilst the two were in Hemsby that Craske began to also make toy boats to sell to passersby, and that was how the poet Valentine Ackland first came across him and persuaded him to sell her one of his works which she showed to her lover, Dorothy Warren, who had a new gallery in Maddox Street in London. Valentine was keen to add Craske to her list of artists; so much so that she returned to Norfolk to find him. By then, Craske had left Hemsby and returned to Dereham. She eventually tracked him down there and found him in bed in a coma and close to death. Laura thought this tall lady in trousers had come to ask for her money back, but when she was told that more of the same was wanted, Laura brought out all of her husband’s paintings and, in return for £20 in £5 notes, gave them to Ackland who took a good few away with her. A few months later she and Warren returned to Dereham to find Craske much improved. He had produced his first embroideries and was more business-like than his wife, selling pieces according to the time he had spent on them.
He had taken up embroidery because he could stitch while lying down. He used deck chair frames as stretchers for the cloth and old gramophone needles to hammer it in place. Craske was very meticulous about getting the precise tilt of a boat according to the pull of a current or the direction of the wind. It was said that when a photocopy of an embroidery, called Rescue from Breeches Buoy, was shown to a Cromer fisherman, he looked at it and said: “See, she’s foundered and she’s going to get smashed. That main line there is to get the people off …….. they’ll be alright soon enough.”
The first exhibition of John Craske’s work opened at the Warren Gallery in August 1929 where it was a success: “the ship pictures by Mr. John Craske are definitely – if crudely – works of art,” said the Times. The Daily Mail declared: “the work, though childishly naive, has extraordinary charm and decorative effectiveness”, adding, “The hero of the hour himself, a humble and God-fearing man, was not present as he is seriously ill.”
A second exhibition followed but this did not go so well. The principal reason was that Ackland had fallen out with Warren having started a love affair with the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. In a strange and curious way, Craske became part of their romance when Townsend Warner was taken to meet him. She was immediately impressed by his speechlessness, his simple poverty and by what she saw as the integrity of his vision. Both Ackland and Warner became his patrons and bought his work whenever they could, persuading their friends to do the same; with the Norfolk preservationist Billa Harrod acquiring a number of pieces. For the two women, together with Ackland’s wealthy American lover Elizabeth Wade White who appeared on the scene a few years later, Craske encapsulated not only the beauty of the north Norfolk coast and the North Sea, but also of happier times. The three had numerous examples of Craske’s work on the walls of their houses, although the embroideries yellowed by cigarette smoke and bleached by the sun. But it is mostly thanks to Ackland and Warner that Craske’s work has survived, especially when in the early 1970s, Townsend Warner presented her collection, along with whatever biographical material she had, to Peter Pears and the Snape Maltings, believing that:
“Craske is an artist whose work should be on view in east Anglia ……. enhanced in the sharpened light of a seaboard sky”.
Craske continued being mostly silent and often ill, making pictures whenever he could. He must have produced hundreds of images, but most have been casually mislaid, and although his work did receive a certain amount of praise when it was shown in the US in the early 1940s, his reputation was never established beyond a small circle of admirers. When the Norwich Castle Museum was approached in 1947, with a request to borrow a large embroidery which they had in storage, the curator agreed on condition that her name was not mentioned, “because, quite frankly, I do not think work of this type comes under the heading of art”.
Craske explained that some of his ideas came from memory and some from imagination, which was often inspired when friends told him of shipwrecks or lucky escapes at sea. He spent an increasing amount of time listening to the wireless and in 1940, he heard how the English soldiers had been pushed back to the Normandy coast. The unfolding account of the evacuation of Dunkirk inspired his most ambitious embroidery: a sort of modern-day Bayeux tapestry, 13 feet long, which told the story of men in boats being saved by the sea. He worked on it until his death, leaving a raggedy patch of unstitched sky that still needed to be filled in.
In his lifetime Craske, a self-taught artist, was briefly welcomed by the arts world, championed by writers such as Sylvia Townsend Warner and her friends who bought and sold his works, and exhibited in London and in the US. Craske died on 26 August 1943 but within a few years of his death he was almost completely forgotten. Many of his works were destroyed, thrown away, burned, faded in sunlight on parlour walls, or left decaying in damp museum stores. Craske’s widow, Laura, gave the Dunkirk embroidery, which she regarded as his masterpiece, despite the poignant patch of bare unfinished canvas in the sky, to the Norwich Castle Museum. Craske would have been proud to know his work was in the museum, she once said – but it has never been exhibited there!
Arguably, the largest exhibition ever of John Craske’s works, rescued from museum stores or borrowed from private collectors, was as recent as 2015 in Norwich; it was displayed at the Norwich University of the Arts Gallery, where he is regarded not as a forgotten eccentric but as a neglected genius. It was Prof Neil Powell, curator of the exhibition along with Craske’s biographer Julia Blackburn (see below), who quoted at the time:
“I don’t believe Craske should be viewed either as an outsider artist, or as naïve. In any other country he would be properly viewed as a serious artist. He had a highly sophisticated sense of colour and form, and a truly extraordinary ability to convey the three-dimensional world in the medium of needlework.” Julia Blackburn added: “He was poor, he was sick, and he was a man who did embroidery – of course he was forgotten.”
It was purely by chance when Prof. Powell and Julia Blackburn learned that they had been separately on the trail of Craske; Powell had been hunting for surviving works, including some given by Townsend Warner to the Aldeburgh Music centre, whilst Julia Blackburn had been gathering scraps of biographical information including a hand-coloured studio photograph of him as a young fisherman, self-consciously holding what she thought was a photographer’s prop, a length of fake paper rope. “You get more old photographs of fishermen than any other workers – they had them done to leave some record in case they drowned,” she once said.
It was the hope that the NUA Gallery exhibition would revive Craske’s reputation and uncover more of his work. Previously unknown postcard-sized paintings still cherished by his doctor’s family turned up weeks before that exhibition. Prof. Powell and Julia Blackburn also found that many of the owners expressed surprised when the experts thought them worth exhibiting.
Julia Blackburn also recalled that during the preparation for her biography on Craske, she visited Sheringham and looked up old people who might have remembered John Craske. In her own words:
“Eliza, who had had 12 children and at the age of 92 could still dance, thought John was her uncle “Ninny” Craske, but she wasn’t sure. She told me of “Little Dick” Craske, her grandfather, who learned to tap dance on a wooden chest when he was sent to Icelandic waters at the age of nine, and who would dance for the ladies and their clients in the ‘Two Lifeboats’ whorehouse. “Where’s my little Dick?” asked his mother when she came looking for him, and that was how he got his name. The only Craske that Old Bennet knew was Jack, drowned in 1931; they saved his friend Sparrow by grabbing hold of his hair. Old Bennet had lobster pots instead of flowers in his front garden and he giggled like a schoolboy when I asked him how to catch whelks: “They’ll eat anything, whelks … they travel about the sea looking for dead meat …… a boat turned over and three men drowned, they was full o’ whelks.”
Julia Blackburn’s book Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske was published by Jonathan Cape and is still available.
Featured (Banner) Image: John Craske’s embroidery of The Evacuation of Dunkirk shown at the NUA gallery, Norwich.