Trace and Transfer
Family artifacts recovered from an empty property provide inspiration for Omagh artist Claire McLaughlin
Ceramicist Claire McLaughlin’s collection of work in clay, earthenware and porcelain china, Trace and Transfer is an artistic homage to the legacy of one particular Enniskillen family, the Herberts.
McLaughlin’s mother, Eithne Herbert, was born in a town house in Enniskillen at 21 Darling Street. When it was recently advertised for sale, memorabilia and significant objects were distributed to the immediate family, including to the artist herself.
Among the items McLaughlin received was a large, leather bound ledger letterbook, which belonged to her great great grandfather, Richard Herbert. It contained carbon copies of business and personal letters that he wrote in an elegant hand and in the formal letter-writing style of the day.
125 years ago, in 1887, the astute businessman established a landmark Victorian pub on Enniskillen’s main street. Though the pub is now owned by the Blake family, it preserves its original architectural features and interior design. In a traditional snug on the first floor is the very bureau upon which Mr Herbert wrote his correspondence.
A man of seemingly high principles, determination and endeavour, his priority was to educate his 13 children. When two of his sons married, he purchased a desirable property in Darling Street, which was then divided into two houses.
Richard Arthur Herbert, a solicitor, lived at No. 19, while dentist Charles Henry, Claire McLaughlin’s grandfather, occupied No 21. These professional men became relatively affluent and their families enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle.
References to details of the interior furnishing and fittings at No. 21 – the stained glass windows, Minton tiles, ornaments and tableware – emerge in the original works on display in Trace and Transfer at the Higher Bridges Gallery.
An elaborately decorated Japanese dividing screen rescued from the attic has provided McLaughlin with a particularly rich source of material. Since one of the three panels was damaged she carefully dissected it, unpicking the layers of fabric until she came to a newspaper printed in Japan exactly 100 years ago on November 6, 1912.
An actual section of the fine surface silk, elaborately embroidered with birds and floral motifs, was processed in a plaster mould to create a pair of engraved wall panels. An inner layer of copper coloured damask cloth was so pleasing in itself, it was recycled as Japanese block prints.
A metronome made by the French company Pacquet, which sat on the piano in the drawing room, is replicated in a series of unglazed white clay pots, each one carrying the manufacturer’s diamond shaped logo, sometimes embellished in gold leaf and sometimes plain.
On the back of each pot is a glazed surface patterned with decal transfers and resembling the rosebud design on a tea set, or the blue and white floral pattern of a dinner service.
Earthenware tiles individually mounted on varnished wood are decorated with Herbert trademarks – a small tooth, a skeletal cranium recalls the dentist. There is a quill pen, ink blots and selected lines from Richard Herbert’s letters.
Most poignant are the words from a letter he wrote to his wife as she kept vigil by the deathbed of their 18 year old son Vincent. It reads: ‘We hope he will have a clear passage to heaven and we must bear our first great loss with Christian patience for the will of God must be obeyed.’
Other tiles are embellished with deconstructed willow pattern motifs, which are torn at times to signify upheaval in the family. Some are embossed with ceramic scrolls which hint at the curve of a jug handle, the flounce of a Royal Doulton figurine.
White archive gloves, the kind used to handle precious manuscripts, were soaked in bone china slick, fired, then adorned with visual clues about Herbert family history. McLaughlin's mother Eithne died four years ago and the cloths she used for cleaning have been treated through the same process. Her mother’s worn down and broken bread board is also on display, part of it enhanced with a glazed decal pattern.
Though it is quite personal, this exhibition does convey important messages about families, their times and traditions. In its attachments and attentions it reminds me of a remarkable book, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal, coincidentally a ceramicist.
That book tells the story of Waals Jewish relatives, the Ephrussi family, through the displacement of a precious collection of miniature Japanese netsuke statuettes. And McLaughlin's is equally poignant and immersive, a wonderful distraction.
Trace and Transfer continues at the Higher Bridges Gallery in Enniskillen until November 24.