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Remembering John Craske

17 July 2018

August 2018 marked the 75th anniversary of the death of local fisherman-turned-artist, John Craske. Alan Tutt finds out more

Born in Sheringham in 1881, John Craske came from a long line of tough fisherfolk. He endured an afflicted life. The army took him in World War One, but he was invalided out after a bout of influenza, in a ‘stuporous state’.

A spell in an asylum followed. 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 he cut himself.

The sea inspired him to paint. Canvases were out of the question, so he began on a bait box, painting a red-sailed lugger in a tempest. It brilliantly caught the interaction of sailor, boat and sea. There was another spell in East Dereham, then a return to the coast at Hemsby.

He painted maritime scenes on any object he could lay his hands on; cardboard, the mantelpiece, doors, plates. 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.

But in London, Ackland showed the work to her friend, lover, gallery owner, Dorothy Warren, who was impressed and wanted some Craskes to sell.

Ackland returned to Norfolk and found John and Laura back in East 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 bedridden. Yet he needed to create. Laura taught him how to embroider as he could stitch while lying down. 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.

Ackland fell out with Warren but other patrons followed, notably Sylvia Townsend Warner, who penned ‘John Craske’s Country’, a paean to Norfolk and to John himself:

“You can blink at the sea till your face is scarlet & your eyes sore

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

Relapses continued and John died in Norwich Hospital on 26 August 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 his vibrant images of the sea live on. John Craske was largely unknown and ignored within his lifetime. However, 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.

Although many works have disappeared into private hands, sold in London and US galleries via the Ackland connection, Townsend Warner and fellow Craske admirer Peter Pears were keen to promote John’s legacy.

They worked to put on a major Craske exhibition in Aldeburgh, and Pears collected John’s papers, now in the Britten-Pears Foundation’s Archive, viewable by appointment. Many of the Craske embroideries Pears owned in his lifetime are on display at The Red House in Aldeburgh, also home to the Archive.

You can see Craske embroideries in North Norfolk, at Sheringham Museum, well-worth visiting, and Glandford Shell Museum, home to Craske’s ‘Panorama of the Norfolk Coast.’

Another work, of epic proportions, ‘The Evacuation of Dunkirk’, which John was working on before he died, is in Norfolk Museums Collections. Thirteen feet long and inspired by wireless reports of what Churchill called the “miracle of Dunkirk”. Unfinished and fragile, it’s not currently on display.

Artworks shown are from the collection at The Sheringham Museum at the Mo,