Winner of the East Anglian Book of the Year 2015
Winner of the New Angle Book Prize 2017
John Craske, a Norfok fisherman, was born in 1881 and in 1917, when he had just turned thirty-six, he fell seriously ill. For the rest of his life he kept moving in and out of what was described as ‘a stuporous state’. In 1923 he started making paintings of the sea and boats and the coastline seen from the sea, and later, when he was too ill to stand and paint, he turned to embroidery, which he could do lying in bed. His embroideries were also the sea, including his masterpiece, a huge embroidery of The Evacuation of Dunkirk.
Very few facts about Craske are known, and only a few scattered photographs have survived, together with accounts by the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner and her lover Valentine Ackland, who discovered Craske in 1937. So - as with all her books - Julia Blackburn’s account of his life is far from a conventional biography. Instead it is a quest which takes her in many strange directions - to fishermen’s cottages in Sheringham, a grand hotel fallen on hard times in Great Yarmouth and to the isolated Watch House far out in the Blakeney estuary; to Cromer and the bizarre story of Einstein’s stay there, guarded by dashing young women in jodhpurs with shotguns.
Threads is a book about life and death and the strange country between the two where John Craske seemed to live. It is also about life after death, as Julia’s beloved husband Herman, a vivid presence in the early pages of the book, dies before it is finished.
In a gentle meditation on art and fame; on the nature of time and the fact of mortality; and illustrated with Craske’s paintings and embroideries, Threads shows, yet again, that Julia Blackburn can conjure a magic that is spellbinding and utterly her own.
Hubert is a solitary man who shapes his life by going to museums. He talks to few people and only about museums and art. When his neighbour downstairs, a lonely woman, tries to seduce him, he doesn't understand. He takes photos of the pictures he likes - usually of beautiful women - and paints copies of the paintings at home. There is only one real woman who fascinates him; she lives in the opposite building and he can see her balcony from his window.
One of the most beautiful graphic novels Jonathan Cape has ever published, Hubert marks the beginning of a great career.
Shortlisted for the 2011 Costa Biography Award and the 2012 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize
Julia Blackburn and her husband moved to a little house in the mountains of northern Italy in 1999. She arrived as a stranger but a series of events brought her close to the old people of the village and they began to tell her their stories. Of how their village had been trapped in an archaic feudal system and owned by a local padrone who demanded his share of all they had, of the eruption of the Second World War, of the conflict between the fascists and the partisans, of death and fear and hunger of how they hid like like foxes in the mountains. 'Write it down for us,' they said, 'because otherwise it will all be lost.'
Thin Paths is a celebration of the songlines of one place that could be many places and a celebration of the humour and determination of the human spirit.
Winner of the J. R. Ackerley Award
This is the story of three people: Julia Blackburn, her father Thomas and her mother Rosalie. Thomas was a poet and an alcoholic, who for many years was addicted to barbiturates; Rosalie, a painter, was sociable and flirtatious. After her parents were divorced, Julia's mother took in lodgers, always men, on the understanding that each should become her lover. When one of the lodgers started an affair with Julia, Rosalie was devastated; when he later committed suicide the relationship between mother and daughter was shattered irrevocably.
Or so it seemed until the spring of 1999, when Rosalie, diagnosed with leukaemia, came to live with Julia for the last month of her life.
In these five stories Julia Blackburn recalls the significant animals in her life and in so doing gives us a sidelong glance at the human members of her family, her painter mother and poet father.
First comes Congo the bush baby, from the jungles of Madagascar via Harrods pet department. He slept in an old cap on the back of the door, and could leap about the room via the picture rails. Then there are tropical fish, tortoises, chickens, guinea pigs, foxes (the last three a combustible combination), pigs, and two very distinctive dogs, Julia's own dog, Jason, a cocker spaniel whose habits of servility and loyalty Julia's father, Thomas, was determined to undo ('He's worse than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, fawning at my heels!') and Henry, a Parson Jack Russell terrier that Thomas got after his divorce, a dog of great independence, dignity and forbearance, whom his master used to take mountaineering.
This is a delightful book, wry, funny and wise, and unmistakably the work of Julia Blackburn.
Julia Blackburn's brilliant and haunting book is a life of Billie Holiday told in the voices of those who knew her. During the 1970s a young woman called Linda Kuehl, planning to write a biography of Billie, recorded interviews with more than 150 people. Kuehl died in 1978 and her book never came out, but her recordings survived to provide the raw material for this extraordinary account of the life of America's First Lady of Jazz.
Billie Holiday is usually portrayed as a tragic victim of her own vices. These intimate stories give us a much deeper picture of her personality - we witness scenes from her chaotic childhood; we see her when she first arrives in Harlem at the age of fourteen; and we follow her through her rise to fame and into the notoriety that came so close on its heels.
Billie's friends and lovers and fellow musicians talk about her troubles and her addictions, but they also have a lot to say about her warmth and her courage, and the ones who were really close to her understood that although she had a lot of men and drugs and booze in her life, all that really mattered was the singing.
In 1792, when he was forty-seven, the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya contracted a serious illness which left him stone deaf. In this extraordinary book Julia Blackburn follows Goya through the remaining thirty-five years of his life. It was a time of political turmoil, of war, violence and confusion, and Goya transformed what he saw happening in the world around him into his visionary paintings, drawings and etchings.
These were also years of tenderness for Goya, of intimate relationships with the Duchess of Alba and with Leocadia, his mistress, who was with him to the end. Julia Blackburn writes of the elderly painter with the intimacy of an old friend, seeing through his eyes and sharing the silence in his head, capturing perfectly his ferocious energy, his passion and his genius.
'Wandering through dreams and nightmares from Praslin Islands to Mauritius and finally to England, the author unfolds the troubled lives of her forbears, cursed by racial prejudice, sexual inhibition and recurrent mental illness. This first novel is a powerfully and cleverly written expurgation of personal feelings, drawing the reader into a landscape like that of a Dali painting' - Eileen Cowey, Scotland on Sunday
The Book of Colour is about childhood, about madness, about the fear of miscegenation - and about a pig. It establishes Julia Blackburn as one of the most original English writers since Chatwin. It was shortlisted for The Orange Prize 1996.
To escape from her own sadness, a woman finds refuge in a past time. In a village by the sea she watches the lives of the inhabitants unfold around her. But the year is now 1410 and this is a world of devils and miracles, a world in which there are no clear boundaries between reality and the power of the imagination.
A man's discovery of a mermaid washed up on the sand starts a chain of events that leads three of the villagers to accompany the enigmatic figure of the leper on a pilgrimmage to the Holy Land. The woman joins them and sets out without the certainty of ever coming home again.
The Leper's Companions was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.
In 1913, when she was 54 years old, Daisy Bates went to live in the deserts of South Australia. And there she stayed, with occasional interruptions, for almost 30 years.
In Daisy Bates in the Desert Julia Blackburn explores the ancient and desolate landscape where Ms Bates says she was most happy. She fuses her own imagination and experience with that of Daisy Bates, unitl she seems to be recalling this other life as it it were her own.
The Emperor's Last Stand is a book about St Helena, an island with a sad, strange history, and about the tangle of stories and myths, absurdities and simple facts that have accumulated around Napoleon and his sojourn here. It follows him through the eyes of those who lived with him, who guarded him, who managed only to catch a brief glimpse of him, alive or dead.
It is also a personal account: a description of Julia Blackburn's own journey to St Helena and at the same time a journey through the private memories and associations evoked by the telling of this poignant and curious story.
Julia Blackburn has written several books of non-fiction - Charles Waterton, The Emperor's Last Island, Daisy Bates in the Desert, With Billie - a family memoir, The Three of Us, which won the 2009 J. R. Ackerley Award, and, most recently, Thin Paths; and also two novels, The Book of Colour and The Leper's Companions, both of which were shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She is the author of seventeen short stories specially commisioned by BBC Radio, a selection of which were published in My Animals and Other Family, and four radio plays, including The Spellbound Horses, which was broadcast in 2011.