Threads: the Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn

ThreadsI don’t remember putting Threads (2015) on a wishlist, but I think I must have done – otherwise the choice my friend Barbara made in buying it and sending it to me was more serendipitous than I can expect. I imagine I put it there while reading Claire Harman’s biography of Sylvia Townsend Warner – but I had the happy experience, with my terrible memory, of forgetting anything about the connection at all until Warner’s name cropped up near the beginning of this book.

In brief, Craske was a fisherman who had a serious breakdown that left him unable to continue that profession – and he turned, instead, to painting and (later) embroidery. He was discovered by Sylvia Townsend Warner and her partner Valentine Ackland, and briefly became something of a cause celebre in a select circle – though has since been rather neglected; the museums that hold his work are often ignorant or ashamed of the fact.

Blackburn’s book – beautifully produced by Jonathan Cape, with a lovely solidity and brilliantly chosen cover and illustrations – isn’t really a biography. It’s more an account of tracing his life story, which emerges in bits and pieces as the book continues – and of Blackburn’s life as it continues alongside.

I feel like I don’t know much more about Craske than I did when I read the blurb on the inside jacket. He proves quite an elusive figure – beyond the bare framework that Blackburn details of his ancestry, his occupation, and his war. Perhaps he let his work do the talking – and there is plenty of that in this book; we see his depictions of the sea and ships which he painted on any surface that was available, from trays to biscuit tins. Eventually there is the extraordinary, large embroidery of the D-Day landings – a tiny part of which is shown on the cover. Usually the art conceit of using ‘detail’ to mean anything that isn’t the whole image really annoys me – but in this case it is only a detail. Craske’s work, whether in paint or embroidery, is a striking mix of naivety and knowledge. As a fisherman, he knows precisely how the sea behaves; as an artist, he is teaching himself and has a unique perspective.

Craske

Two people truly emerge from this book. One is Laura Craske – John Craske’s wife, who valiantly and quietly cared for him through mental illnesses that she did not understand (and his brothers – defeating any sort of stereotype of unsophisticated rural fishermen – were equally sensitive to Craske’s ailments and requirements). She was also determined for his work to have exposure, when offered, though also rather alarmed at the money that Warner and Ackland offered her for the work. By incremental millimetres, we learn about Laura’s character and resilience, and I certainly warmed to her.

But far and away the most dominant character in this book is Julia Blackburn herself. Her style of writing is so unusual, as is her approach. I had to check to see if she’d written any books before – she has, quite a few – because this feels so like somebody writing for the first time, and striking it lucky. Like Craske’s work, and (who knows) maybe influenced by his work, Blackburn’s prose is almost primitive. Here, for instance, she is doing some research into the family:

Philip came back with the photograph album and there was Grandfather the good doctor, tall and pale-eyed with a big blond moustache and a look of benevolent abstraction on his face. And here was Granny Cats his wife, also abstracted, but less benevolently so, or was that my imagination? And here was their infant son who appeared so thin and wan and that you would never expect him to survive into adulthood, but he got through and became a solicitor and married and had a son called Philip so that was good.

So many of her accounts seem to be about artwork she forgot to see or questions she forgot to ask. The raw threads of her biographical technique are exposed here, like looking at the back of a piece of embroidery. Many of the people who might have known the family are now very old – and she comments on the erratic interviews she manages to get. And the tangents! A thought leads to a thought. There is a chapter on a man she knew who had a parrot, which has nothing to do with Craske; there is a chapter that is a story a man called Keith sent her; there is a surprising chapter on Einstein’s visit locally (and accounts of the firm rebuttals made to her by Einstein experts that he couldn’t possibly have been seen riding a bike at that point, as he had yet to learn). There are sections of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, which I, of course, loved. There are very moving chapters on Blackburn’s husband and his illness.

It is all a very unusual combination, and would put Hermione Lee into hysterics – but it works, and completely beguiles. Blackburn does nothing linearly. The quest for Craske is the book, and he is not the subject – instead he, and his art, are (yes) the golden threads shimmering through the centre of this strange and wonderful work.