Family connection to Empress of Ireland inspires art student

25 November 2014 by Jen

Artwork by Jessica Cain inspired by the Empress of Ireland sinking

Artwork by Jessica Cain inspired by the Empress of Ireland sinking

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.

Artwork by Jessica Cain

Jessica was inspired by artists such as Cathy Peek, Kelly Angard and Michelle Caplan to create an overlaid and antique look

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”

Sepia toned Paiting of Stanley Baker, Jessica's Grandfather

Stanley Baker, Jessica’s Grandfather

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.

  1. Emma Winship says:

    Amazing art work, honesty outstanding! I Love it It’s so moving, all of Jessica’s work and I can’t wait to see more in the future.

    • Jen says:

      I quite agree, Emma! Jessica’s work is fantastic and the emotion behind it really makes it stand out. We were all very pleased to see such an interesting modern and personal response to this tragedy. Her work should be one to watch!

  2. Harold Ford says:

    I am the husband of the Daughter of the late StanleyBaker.
    Stanley lived to the ripe old age of 89 Years and continued in good health right up until just a few months before his death from Dementure in 1987.
    At the time of the sinking of the “Empress” Stanley was only 15 years of age and was employed as a Bell Boy, upon his return England he continued in finding employment in Shipping and progressed in the capacity of a Ship’s Officer and eventually worked his way up to the rank of Certificated Second Mate with the British India Steamship Company.
    He was small in stature but very agile and most lovial individual.
    It was a very great pleasure to have known him.

    • Jen says:

      Thanks for that, Harold! It sounds like Stanley had a fascinating career and was obviously held in great affection by those who knew him.

  3. Marilyn Cooksey says:

    I am the Granddaughter of Clarence Baker, the younger brother of Harry and Stanley, and it is lovely to see this tribute put together so beautifully by Jessica.
    It was also heart warming to see a fitting tribute in the Liverpool Maritime Museum this year, commemorating 100 years since the sinking, and to attend the Memorial Service. The trauma of the event must have devastated everybody concerned – not least my/our Great Grandmother, Marian Baker – the tragic loss of Harry is remembered on a family gravestone in Neston on the Wirral, where Marian now rests herself. My hope is that now that the sadness and loss of The Empress is no longer forgotten … certainly not by us! …. they can all now rest in peace.
    I will be looking forward to seeing the new Empress of Ireland display, perhaps you could email me once this is open.

    • Jen says:

      You’re right, Marilyn, this story shows quite poignantly the devastating effect this tragedy had on the local area and how it is still making an impact several generations on. I know you’ve been in contact with Ben previously and he’ll be back in touch to let you know when the objects are re-installed in their new position.

  4. Susan Simon says:

    Brilliant art
    work from Jessica. Such a moving tribute to Grandad Stan. Thank you.

    • Jen says:

      It is a lovely tribute to Jessica’s family history and I’m very glad we got the opportunity to showcase it here.

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