Artist's Statement: Recreating the fish guts, scales and blood of the women who drove Britain's herring industry

| 21 March 2016

Artist’s Statement: Katie Scarlett Howard has spent two years looking at the British herring industry in the early to mid-20th century, researching the fisherwomen from Scotland who travelled down the North East coast of Britain each year to “follow the Herring”

A photo of a woman from the bygone British fishing industry sculpted by
© Katie Scarlett Howard
“These women were known as ‘The Herring Lassies’ or ‘The Herring Girls’. They worked long, arduous days, gutting and packing fish into wooden barrels in harbours and Port towns. They played a significant part in making Britain the biggest fishery in the world.

A photo of a woman from the bygone British fishing industry sculpted by
© Katie Scarlett Howard
The images of these women working outdoors in all types of weather, up to their arms in fish guts, scales and blood, may not sound appealing to many, but the pure tenacity, strength and pride they had in their work is something I strive to capture through the means of my own sculptural practice in figurative ceramics – to celebrate, no matter how difficult life was, the unbreakable spirit The Herring Girls had.

A photo of a woman from the bygone British fishing industry sculpted by
© Katie Scarlett Howard
My research has led me to locations such as Stornoway, in the Isle of Lewis, Fife, Aberdeen, the fishing villages and port towns of Scotland’s North East coast, Scarborough, Grimsby, Whitby, then down to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. In North Wales, I have been excited to learn that the industry thrived in Holyhead.

A photo of a woman from the bygone British fishing industry sculpted by
© Katie Scarlett Howard
I hope to draw comparisons between Scotland, England and back to the history of the fishing industry in Wales and how it is still relevant today with fishing stocks in so much of a decline. I have also travelled recently to the second and third largest consumers of fish in the world: firstly to explore the fish canning industry, sardine and salt cod culture in Portugal and, then, the dried cod industry in Iceland.

A photo of a woman from the bygone British fishing industry sculpted by
© Katie Scarlett Howard
These experiences have given me a wealth of historical resources to draw upon. I have uncovered compelling accounts of fishermen who took trawlers out into the depths of the North Atlantic sea and women who canned sardines their whole working lives, up to the mid-20th century.

A photo of a woman from the bygone British fishing industry sculpted by
© Katie Scarlett Howard
With this new body of work in Stoneware fired clay, I have experimented with a colour palette inspired by the locations. My figures are influenced strongly by the shades of the North Wales coast, textures of pebbles from Anglesey, grains of sand, the dark green black hues of bladder wrack, fishing ropes and lobster pots from Anglesey, shiny mussels from Conwy and the beautiful colours of The Silver Darlings, as the Herrings and Mackerel were affectionately known.

A photo of a woman from the bygone British fishing industry sculpted by
© Katie Scarlett Howard
The greys and blues of the sea and the earthy brown tones of the wooden packing barrels also feature as colour references in my ceramics. The glazes are more muted than any palette I have used before and the cracks, drips and mottled appearance of the figures give the work a more mature, organic finish.

I use a rough-textured, grainy clay to convey the hard working nature of these people and to stain them with oxides, giving a slightly flawed appearance as if smeared in the fish entrails from hours of gutting and packing.

The role of women in the herring industry continues to be under-documented and I feel it is important and relevant today for the next generation to have a clearer understanding of our fishing history and heritage – how we as humans have impacted on our seas through over-fishing.”

  • The Herring Girls is at The Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther until May 8 2016.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to find fishing history in

Dumfries Museum and Camera Obscura, Dumfries
Food from the sea has sustained the people of south-west Scotland for the past 10,000 years and is now an integral part of local life. Take a journey through time
and discover the story of people who have fished the Solway coast, the traditional
methods employed and the changes that have taken place.

Grimsby Fishing Heritage Centre
Discover the sites and sounds of the 1950's fishing heritage. Enjoy a guided tour of the Ross Tiger.

Brighton Fishing Museum
The main museum arch is the focal point of Brighton's fishing quarter. It contains a 27ft beach boat, prints, photographs and memorabilia of Brighton seafront life from the Regency days to the post-war boom in pleasure boat operations.
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