The amazing Norfolk artwork inspired by the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’
PUBLISHED: 16:30 15 July 2017
With a new film about to be released about the 1940 ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, Trevor Heaton sees a remarkable Norfolk artwork inspired by the rescue - and its equally remarkable creator.
His life was wrecked by the ‘War to end all Wars’. But that did not stop him honouring those caught up in its sequel.
And for Norfolk fisherman-turned-artist John Craske, that tribute was expressed in an extraordinary artwork, an embroidery honouring the bravery and skill of the fleet of ‘little boats’ which saved hundreds of thousands of troops at Dunkirk.
The release of an epic new film about the 1940 evacuation of British troops next week has focused attention on one of the most unusual artworks in the whole of the Norfolk Museums Service collections - and by one of the county’s most unusual artists.
At 11 feet long and 25 inches wide, this is like a one-man Bayeux Tapestry, and is by far the largest of dozens - perhaps hundreds - of paintings and embroideries produced by Craske.
He began his life with no inkling that he would do anything other than follow his father and his forefathers before him into a hard life of danger and unremitting labour in the Sheringham fishing industry.
The danger might have disappeared when his father decided to move to Dereham - far from the sea - and set up a fishmonger’s shop in 1905, but the hard work certainly didn’t. Craske worked for years from 6am to 11pm every day, rarely taking any days off or holidays, even when he married local girl Laura Eke in 1908.
The First World War affected the Craskes as they did millions of families across the world. But John Craske, called up in 1917, was to meet his nemesis not in some German bullet, but with the onset of influenza.
Truth be told, he was already a sick man. “He had already tried to enlist twice, but been rejected on medical grounds,” explained Ruth Battersby Tooke, curator of the Norfolk Museums Service costumes and textiles department and the person charged with looking after this masterpiece.
The influenza led to what was diagnosed at the time as abscesses of the brain, a diagnosis that has been disputed in recent years. The upshot was that the 27-year-old was left sick and utterly lethargic, often hospitalised, with slurred speech and problems keeping his balance.
Julia Blackburn, who chronicled what scraps of information we have about his life in her acclaimed 2015 biography Threads, believes that the diabetic Craske might also have been suffering from a pituitary gland disorder.
Unable to work, he poured what energy he had into producing a host of sea-related paintings, and then - encouraged by Laura - embroideries with whatever materials he had to hand. The couple survived, just, on what John could sell his creations for.
He once said: “I was ill in bed for 3 years, which I remember very little about, after which I just felt something I cannot explain urging me on to make pictures of the sea and ships. Continually, fresh ideas are flashing through my mind and when I hear the thrilling stories of sea rescues on the wireless, I make a note of them and hope some day to put them in pictures. I thank God for this gift as I realise it comes from Him!”
In 1927 or 1928 he was ‘discovered’ by poet Valentine Ackland on a visit to her mother’s holiday cottage. The Craskes lived in Hemsby by now, and Ackland writes how she found him ‘fragile and sickly’. Her passion for his work resulted in an exhibition in London in 1929 where critics praised its simplicity and ‘extraordinary charm’.
Ackland met her lover Sylvia Townshend Walker in 1930, and soon she too was swept up in her enthusiasm for Craske’s work. The two championed his work throughout their lives, often in the face of ambivalence from the art establishment. After Valentine’s death, Sylvia wrote to Peter Pears - whom she had never met but deeply admired - asking him to see her Craske collection and give it a permanent home in East Anglia after her death.
The Suffolk singer was entranced with the Craskes, and they were exhibited in 1971 as part of the Aldeburgh Festival. Two other exhibitions followed in 1974 and 1977. Sylvia died in 1978.
As for poor John Craske, he was long in his grave by now. In 1940 he had begun his greatest work, inspired by the bravery of the ‘little ships’ which had answered - in their hundreds - their nation’s desperate call to rescue the troops at Dunkirk.
The result of his labours is laid out for me to see on a long table in the Shire Hall offices. I feel immensely privileged, as does Ruth Battersby Tooke to have this wonder in the collections.
For wonder it is: thousands upon thousands of intricate stitches - ‘it’s all stem stitch’ - have created a vast panorama of ships and sea, aircraft and flame, ack-ack explosions, soldiers and dunes. It sounds dramatic, and is.
“Had he remained a fisherman he would have been involved with the rescue himself,” Ruth explained. “I believe this was his way of ‘doing his bit’ to recognise that extraordinary effort. It must have been deeply emotional for him.”
Craske’s experience of the sea can be seen everywhere, from the pattern of the bow waves to the slackness of a cable caught by a dip in the waves. “He wouldn’t have been able to go to the cinema in his condition, so he never saw any newsreels of the evacuation. I think he may have seen some of the ships in [the magazine] Picture Post.”
The landscape in the foreground is very much the North Norfolk he would have known as a young man, all dunes and marram grass, carefully picked out in silk floss.
There are no pencil marks on the backing canvas, so all of this vast sweep of detail was created in Craske’s mind’s eye. Impressive enough for anyone, but for someone in his condition, simply incredible. “As an embroiderer, he is fantastic,” Ruth added. “There is so much movement, texture and colour.”
By 1943, time was running out for Craske. “By this stage he was so infirm that he could not leave his bed. He made the embroidery on a framework made out of an old deckchair.”
His creation has been out on display, but not recently. “It’s something I am always hoping to get more recognition for, and I’m always open to loaning it out [to other museums],” she explained.
It is also possible to see the embroidery by appointment - ‘We have it out of storage at least six times a year’ - and previous viewers have included some of the extended Craske family. (No appointments will be accept until after the Nelson exhibition, however).
Those given the chance to see it will immediately spot that it is not quite finished. When he went into hospital for the final time, Craske asked his devoted wife Laura to bring in his embroidery for one last effort. But a few days later he fell into a coma and died on August 26 1943.
Unlike the hundreds of thousands of troops at Dunkirk who had inspired his masterpiece, Craske was not to be given a second chance.