One the most interesting aspects of working in museums is getting to hear people’s stories and explore the personal side of historic events, including the impact they often still have today.
The sinking of the Empress of Ireland on 29 May 1914 was one of the worst maritime disasters of the twentieth century. Though overshadowed now by the loss of Titanic and Lusitania this sinking resulted in more passenger deaths than either of those more famous tragedies, with a loss of 840 passengers and 172 members of crew. Many of the crew were from the Liverpool area so, like Titanic before it and Lusitania in the following year, the tragedy had strong local connections and was keenly felt in the city.
We have recently been in contact with a young lady whose personal family connections with the Empress of Ireland have inspired her to create the artwork you can see here. Jessica Cain’s Great Great Grandfather and Great Great Great Uncle, Stanley and Harry Baker, both served on the Empress of Ireland on her final voyage.
The Empress collided with another ship in the St Lawrence River in Canada in the early hours of the morning and quickly began to sink, taking less than 15 minutes to fully submerge. In these already horrific circumstances, the two brothers found themselves parted by a sealed door. Stanley was on the right side to escape and, at Harry’s insistence that he go and save himself, was forced to leave his brother behind. Harry sadly died in the sinking while Stanley was one of the fortunate survivors, going on to marry and have a family including Great Great Granddaughter Jessica.
Jessica has created her artwork as part of her A-Level Art course. She told us she chose the topic:
“as a way of honouring my great-great grandad. I have found the story really interesting and very moving, particularly as it involves my family history”
It certainly is a very moving story; the idea of having to leave a loved one behind is a powerful and distressing one. In any large disaster the sheer scale can make it hard to fully comprehend the loss of so many people and it is often the smaller, personal stories, like that of Stanley and Harry Baker, that really have the power to bring home to us the human tragedy behind the numbers. Jessica’s artwork seems to beautifully capture the sorrow of her family’s story, particularly the last one here, based on a photograph of her grandfather, in wonderfully atmospheric sepia tones.
One of things that really struck me in reading Jessica’s correspondence was the very personal impact a historic tragedy is still having 100 years on, that even at a century’s remove these stories still have the power to move us. The quotes in the first and second pieces of artwork here are from a memorial poem written at the time of the sinking, nicely tying together the theme of commemoration both historic and modern within Jessica’s art.
A facsimile of this poem formed part of our Empress of Ireland display for many years and can viewed in full on the website. Our Titanic, Lusitania and the Forgotten Empress gallery is currently closed while we work on creating a new exhibition but there will be a new Empress of Ireland display in our Life at Sea gallery in 2015.
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