A rocky life in pictures

IAN COLLINS Paintings and tapestries by disabled fisherman John Craske reveal Norfolk’s maritime history and suggest metaphors for rocky life. Ian Collins cheers the rediscovery of a major talent.

IAN COLLINS

In 1927 a young poet called Valentine Ackland called at a fisherman's cottage in Hemsby to buy a model boat and found pictures of ships sailing on every surface – doors, box lids, trays and even a pastry board.

Valentine – well-named because she looked the spit of matinée idol Rudolph Valentino – had just discovered John Craske, one of Britain's greatest naïve artists.

Craske was frail and ailing. But the visitor was amazed by the vitality of his paintings.

She fell hook, line and sinker for a study of a ship called The James Edward and begged to buy it for 30 shillings (£1.50). Although the image was Mrs Craske's pride and joy, so vast a sum seemed miraculous.

Two years later the work was spotted in Valentine's London flat by a West End art dealer, and the poet was commissioned to return to Norfolk to bag enough pictures for an exhibition. When the painter's wife saw her coming she feared a demand for a refund.Successful shows were then staged in London and the United States – though the disabled fisherman from Norfolk, who died in 1943, did not see his work exhibited.

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After Valentine's death, the paintings and tapestries she had collected were displayed in an Aldeburgh festival show arranged by her partner, the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, who bequeathed them to Snape Maltings. They then languished in a cupboard for more than 25 years.

Now several Craske tapestries are on loan to Sheringham Museum, in the town where he was born in 1881. Restored and reframed, a fleet of paintings (including The James Edward) can be seen at Snape during concerts for the rest of the year.

An enormous embroidered panorama of the North Norfolk coast is on view in the Glandford Shell Museum, while another huge work, The Evacuation from Dunkirk, normally at the Norwich Costume and Textile Centre, is now on loan to Sheringham.

Welcome to the gradual rediscovery of a masterly naïve artist and a unique take on our maritime history.

John Craske had followed generations of his Sheringham forebears into work as a deep-sea fisherman before the family moved to Dereham, to open a fishmonger's shop, in 1905. He then made daily train trips to Lowestoft to buy supplies.

The staunch Salvation Army member married Laura Eke in 1908 and early married life was spent at Swanton Morley, then North Elmham, then back in Dereham. He hawked fish around the neighbourhood from baskets on two ponies, doing all his own smoking and curing, and working 17-hour days.

When conscription was introduced in 1916 he was exempted from military service, but he appealed and was called up in May 1917. Within a month he was hospitalised with influenza and after a brain abscess left him prone to nervous collapse he was moved to the mental wing of the War Hospital at Thorpe, Norwich.

In October 1918 Craske was discharged with “harmless mental stupors” into the care of his wife, who looked after him for the rest of his life.

He opened a fish shop in Dereham but in 1920, following the death of his father, suffered a relapse and was confined to a wheelchair.

The Craskes moved briefly to Wiveton and, between his recurrent comas, the invalid carved and painted, also sailing out to Blakeney Point in a little boat. This period is perfectly recalled in the 4½-metre coastal panorama now at Glandford.

Materials were whatever came to hand – old bits of wood, lining paper, drips of distemper, housepaint, whitewash, children's watercolours; cheap frames were decorated with shells and pebbles. However poor the media, the artist's imagination was rich and his talent wholly free.

As Craske told his tale: “I was ill in bed for three years, which I remember very little about, after which I just felt something that 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!”

After those coastal spells in a vain search for convalescence, the Craskes returned to Dereham – to 42, Norwich Road. Generally bed-ridden, the artist now took to weaving pictures from odds and ends of wool and cheap silk thread.

There is a striking parallel with Alfred Wallis – the Cornish fisherman-turned-shopkeeper and abiding Salvationist whose naïve paintings, produced amid mounting infirmity, now fetch many thousands of pounds.

Both men depicted a marine world of storms, shipwrecks and lighthouses, of boats afloat or berthed on slipways and of cottage terraces appearing to slide into the sea.

Each image may be read as a metaphor for rocky life.

And as for patrons Valentine and Sylvia – well, the latter produced two fine historical novels set in Norfolk, The Flint Anchor and The Corner that Held Them.

They often visited Valentine's family in Winterton and lived for a time at Sloley. They braved the winter of 1950 at Great Eye Folly – a gaunt turret near Salthouse which had been a coastguard station.

The couple tried to buy this forbidding fortress, but wisely moved on. For the building was to vanish beneath the Great Flood of 1953.

t John Craske paintings can be seen at Snape Maltings during concerts for the rest of the year. Programme available from Aldeburgh Productions on 01728 687100. The tapestry show in Sheringham Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday 10am-4pm and Sunday 2-4pm until the end of October.

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