NCLA: Julia Blackburn

Katie Read shares her thoughts on the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts talk with Julia Blackburn.

Katie Read
7th December 2015

Blackburn’s book, ‘Threads: The Delicate Life of John Craske’, focuses on the little-known artist John Craske. Or, more specifically, her journey in discovering his life. For Blackburn, one of the most interesting things about Craske is that so little is known of his life – in fact, at times, all she could find of him was the evidence of his absence. So why Craske? Blackburn had wanted to write about someone ‘visual’ for a while and a friend suggested Craske as a subject. What then interested Blackburn was the idea of fame, what makes someone perceived to be important or not. And what held him back?

John Craske was born on the Norfolk coast in 1881 where his father was a fisherman. At the age of six, he started working with his father, but by the time he was twenty-four, he had to retire due to illness. Then, in 1917, on his third attempt, Craske enlisted in the British Army. However, this provoked a relapse of his mysterious illness and he was discharged. It is now believed that he was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, and his illness probably correlated with his success.

Being unable to work, Craske took to painting remembered scenes of the sea. For him, the dry land where he lived was foreign and the sea was life. On the advice of his doctor, who accepted payment in small paintings, Craske returned to the coast. Eventually, Craske became bedridden and turned to embroidery as a means of art. Blackburn says that his embroidery of ‘The Evacuation of Dunkirk’ shows the energy of the man in the stitching.

Blackburn likens herself to Craske in that they both use art forms as a means of creative survival, something that is reflected in her books with the theme of people in predicaments and drifting away.

This ‘conversation’ between Julia Blackman and William Fiennes was brilliant as it allowed the author to examine her feelings towards her own work. It left me wanting to get to know Blackburn as an author – though as a final year student, I’m afraid that I won’t have time until July.

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