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Remembering Norfolk’s starry-eyed stitcher of seascapes

PUBLISHED: 16:50 29 January 2019 | UPDATED: 16:52 29 January 2019

CJ Madge lifeboat, a John Craske artwork at  Sheringham Museum. Image: JOHN CRASKE

CJ Madge lifeboat, a John Craske artwork at Sheringham Museum. Image: JOHN CRASKE

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Norfolk’s link to the sea shines through in the work of John Craske. ALAN TUTT of Cromer Museum recounts the fascinating life of the fisherman-turned-artist.

John Craske. Picture: taken from book 'Threads' by Julia BlackburnJohn Craske. Picture: taken from book 'Threads' by Julia Blackburn

There have been Craskes in Norfolk for a thousand years.

The name is pure East Anglian, deriving from the Latin ‘crassus’ meaning one in good health and spirits. Thus, there’s a certain irony in the tale of fisherman-turned-artist, John Craske.

John was born in Sheringham in 1881 and came from a long line of tough fisher folk.

They plied their trade on the unforgiving North Sea – it takes fortitude to bring in a catch for empty bellies on a stormy day. John had the guts to be such a man but in his case the spirit was willing but the flesh, weak.

John Craske (right) with his father Robert. Picture: Trevor CraskeJohn Craske (right) with his father Robert. Picture: Trevor Craske

He endured an afflicted life and though the army took him in the First World War he was invalided out after a ‘funny turn’.

Soon after, he had a spell in an asylum.

His wife, Laura, stood by him, helping him to recuperate. They moved around; inland to East Dereham – there they had a fish shop and sold fish from a cart. Then a Blakeney cottage, where, healed by the sea, he did some fishing in a borrowed boat with sails cut by his own self.

The sea inspired him to paint. Canvases were out of the question, so he began on a bait box, a red-sailed lugger in a tempest.

The Gannet, a John Craske artwork at  Sheringham Museum. Image: JOHN CRASKEThe Gannet, a John Craske artwork at Sheringham Museum. Image: JOHN CRASKE

It brilliantly caught the visceral interaction of sailor, boat and sea.

Another spell in Dereham, then a return to the coast at Hemsby. He painted maritime scenes on any object he could lay his hands on; cardboard, mantelpiece, door, plate.

There’s a naive honesty there. In Hemsby he sold self-made toy boats to tourists. One such passer-by was poetess, Valentine Ackland – she bought a painting by John. Laura thought it crazy to give money for such a trifle.

In London, Ackland showed the work to her friend, lover, gallery owner, Dorothy Warren.

A detail of 'Smile at the storm' a John Craske artwork at  Sheringham Museum. Image: JOHN CRASKEA detail of 'Smile at the storm' a John Craske artwork at Sheringham Museum. Image: JOHN CRASKE

She was impressed and wanted some Craskes to sell. Ackland returned to Norfolk, found John and Laura back in Dereham. He’d taken to his bed again, appearing to be semi-conscious.

Nonetheless, Ackland bought a number of Craske works – it was the saving of the family.

John recovered from his relapse, but it was near-impossible to paint bed-ridden.

Yet he needed to create. Laura taught him how to embroider – he could stitch while lying down.

'Smile at the storm' by John Craske, an artwork at  Sheringham Museum. Image: JOHN CRASKE'Smile at the storm' by John Craske, an artwork at Sheringham Museum. Image: JOHN CRASKE

For his embroidered scenes he used deckchair frames as stretchers for the cloth and gramophone needles as pegs.

He made the pictures vividly alive, capturing the ocean swell, the tilt of the boat, the puff in the sail.

There are Craske embroideries in Sheringham Museum, well-worth visiting.

Another, of epic proportions, ‘The Evacuation of Dunkirk’, is in Norfolk Museums Collections. Thirteen feet long, inspired by wireless reports of what Churchill called the nine hundred boat ‘miracle of Dunkirk’. Unfinished and fragile, it’s not currently on display.

A John Craske artwork at  Sheringham Museum. Image: JOHN CRASKEA John Craske artwork at Sheringham Museum. Image: JOHN CRASKE

There are other works in the Britten-Pears Foundation, Aldeburgh and an even longer needlework than ‘Dunkirk’ in the Glandford Shell Museum – ‘Panorama of the Norfolk Coast.’ Many have disappeared into private hands.

Sold in London galleries via the Ackland connection, but a lifeline for John and his family. Ackland fell out with Warren but other patrons/friends/lovers followed including writer Sylvia Townsend Warner. She penned, ‘John Craske’s Country’ – a paean to Norfolk and to John himself: “You can blink at the sea till your face is scarlet and your eyes sore;

With a wind blowing from the North Pole and only salt water between.”

John Craske was largely unknown and ignored within his lifetime but his unique brand of ‘folk art’ has gained greater appreciation and recognition in the last few years.

A maritime visionary to rank with Cornish fisherman/artist Alfred Wallis.

John died in Norwich Hospital on August 26, 1943; from septicaemia, lymph/immunity disorder, and diabetes.

His caring and devoted wife, Laura, lived on another 13 years. Undoubtedly, with modern medicine, his afflictions – both mental and physical – would be better understood, more treatable.

But perhaps those were part of the gift that set him apart from other fishermen and from other artists. On his death, John’s wartime masterpiece lay incomplete in his humble cottage. He was just 62, but his vibrant images of the sea will live on long.

Cromer Museum re-opens to the public on April 1. Artworks shown are from Sheringham Museum which re-opens on March 30, visit www.sheringhammuseum.co.uk for more information.

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