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John Craske … and my mum and dad !

April 14, 2019

I was still not clear that my needle work would be up to scratch and did some research;  My mother could embroider well, as a child she would have learned by rote every stitch and needle technique at school and at her mother’s knee.  While in post war life on a houseboat there no immediate need for delicately embroidered dressing table mats or antimacassars, her general needlework and mending was fine and beautiful but no less than my father’s hand sewn boat sails.

I tried my best and could muddle through with old singer, a yard or so of fabric and a Simplicity pattern and some run and fell.  Embroidery was not cool in the 1960s.

Fast forward to my work in the library and my becoming a printmaker and coming across work and books by and about artist such as William Morris and later, Enid Marx, and others making their mark in Art, Craft and Design at the Central School in early to mid-20th century.  When I could consider mixing stitch and print. I looked at contemporary textile artist such Alice Kettle and Cas Holmes and the way they ‘simply’ mixed media. I even tried some other needle techniques like Boro and Sashiko; traditional sewing using simple running stitch.  Finding a way to build on my printing skills without offending the likes of my mother and utilise my basic needlework to the full.

It was during this time when I read about someone who did just that and more beside while struggling with poor physical and mental health.

Threads, the delicate life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn.

A story about a fisherman born 1881; at 36 he became ill and for the rest of his life he moved in and out of what is described as a ‘stuporous state’.  At best he could walk around a little, but mostly he had little energy in his body.  He spoke softly and could work with his hands.  He wrote and painted pictures of the sea and fishing boats.  When he could no longer stand to paint he began stitch work, he lay on his bed propped with pillows with a cloth nailed to a frame in front of him.

Blackburn went to great lengths to find his pictures and there could be hundreds.  Some in exhibitions.  While Craske didn’t see his work on show it was exhibited in London and New York; among them his masterpiece the Evacuation of Dunkirk.  Others were found on walls in private houses, storerooms, cupboards and boxes.  She says he might have been famous but it seems he didn’t fit although some of his work was collected by people whose opinions mattered, such as Benjamin Britton, Peter Piers, John Betjeman, Billa Harrod and it seems for a while Albert Einstein was a friend and neighbour.  Sadly, as embroidery thread fades when exposed to light so, his memory faded.

The story goes on as Julia unravels John’s illness and how his wife and family cared for him as he went in and out of comas finding money to buy cloth and other artist’s materials as well as food and financial support when required and without question.

So, while the story is fascinating on all levels it is Craske’s work and how and why he did it, that is more interesting to me.  As someone who suffers from depression and complicated grief that is at times debilitating, this is 100 years later there is much more information, medication and care when required.  John had a supportive community and wife; a devout Christian who believed that god watched over her and her husband and would provide a small miracle if in real need and it seems he did.  But where did John Craskes’s artistry come from?

Hannah Ryggen was a scholar, she trained as a weaver. She was a strong healthy woman.  She and her husband until the war were able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle and even then, she was able to source the extra yarns and dyes as required.

Craske on the other hand was poor fisherman unable to work and provide for his family let alone buy art supplies.  Yet his work found its way to London and New York and into the homes of eminent collectors

In the book John’s wife, Laura tells how he did his first embroidery. It was when they moved into their own house.  Her mother was staying for a time as John was unwell and restless, seemingly unhappy that Laura was struggling to look after him and ‘pull him back from despair’. She suggests we try to make a picture.  Mother found a frame and a piece of calico bought for the Christmas pudding. They tack it to the frame and John drew a boat and began to fill it in with some wool until he reached the sky when there was no suitable thread.  So, Laura mixed some distemper and a little blue bag in a saucer and he painted it on with a brush.   The boat was call Bob Roy and it was his first picture as he settled into their first home.

John was described in a local paper ‘… never far beyond slate and pencil in art education … at eleven a Grimsby fisherman … yet now an artist of distinction …’

I have not seen John Craske’s work and it is my hope to find some conveniently placed for me in an exhibition.

As an artist from humble beginnings I can relate (a little) to Craske’s struggles yet his gifts go far beyond that of mine.

He was they say ‘a seafarer, gifted marine painter who made a daring combination of needle thread with other media.  A tough act to follow.

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