Artist profile on Dorset ceramicist Caroline Barnes

Caroline Barnes in her studio

Caroline Barnes in her studio - Credit: Archant

A desire to create a collection of contemporary holiday souvenirs of Lyme Regis had ceramicist Caroline Barnes beachcombing the local strandline for inspiration

Buttons. Credit - Glen Cheyne

Buttons. Credit - Glen Cheyne - Credit: Archant

“I love fossils because they are fragments, ghosts of former lives,” says ceramicist Caroline Barnes.

Caroline, who currently has an exhibition at the Rotunda Gallery in Lyme Regis Museum, makes porcelain buttons, tiles and coasters decorated with her drawings from the natural world. Her careful and precise depictions of fossils, ferns, flowers insects, seaweeds, shells and marine creatures are fired on to the clay’s pale, matt surface with platinum transfers.

“I use platinum because it’s quite a special look, but also quite neutral. I have used gold but I don’t like the colour so much, it somehow seems to distract,” she explains.

When you pick up one of her pieces the light ripples and shimmers across the surface. Hold it one way and the design looks dark grey, tilt it the other and the pattern flares. Platinum gives a warmer glimmer than silver; think of the soft glow of an August harvest moon rather than the frosty glitter of winter stars.

Caroline draws her inspiration from the natural world, especially the sea. She frequently walks along the shoreline at Charmouth, near to her home in Whitchurch Canonicorum, looking for fragments washed up by the tide. “I was born in Birmingham and always wanted to live near the sea. It’s a strange and powerful thing the pull of the sea.”

Caroline and her partner Doug moved to Dorset from the Midlands nearly 10 years ago. For many years they rented a house while they engaged in a long search for a family home.

Most Read

“We saw so many, and none of them were right,” remembers Caroline. “And then just as we were about to go away to Spain for a month this cottage came on the market. We dashed round for a viewing and Doug immediately said ‘this is the one’.”

The sellers had several good offers and were in the position to choose their buyer. Caroline and Doug waited on edge to hear who would be the lucky one – but it was Caroline’s ceramics that won the day.

“The seller was a potter – Alan Ashpool, a founder of the Dorset Pottery Group. He’d lived here with his wife for more than 30 years. They wanted it to go to a family with children who would be here full time and the pottery connection was an extra bonus. He said the house would make us happy, and he’s been right.”

The house, Trumps In Cottage, is a wonderful home for an artist. It’s a 16th century thatched cottage with views across the peaceful Marshwood Vale. Inside it’s a characterful scramble of exposed beams, odd doorways, wooden panelling and old fireplaces with the quirky layout typical of traditional Dorset cottages that have been lived in and loved for hundreds of years.

Caroline will be showing her work in the cottage’s front room as part of Dorset Art Weeks in May, giving people the chance to visit and handle her pieces.

“Touch is very important in judging the quality of any craft object – you need to know how a teapot pours, what silk feels like and experience the tactile qualities of a piece. That’s why although I sell buttons and small bits online, I much prefer to meet my buyers face-to-face and make something especially for them,” then she adds, with a smile, “It’s so satisfying that people want something beautiful and they choose to come to me to find it.”

Caroline’s exhibition at Lyme Regis Museum is particularly pertinent setting because she holds an MA in Heritage Studies, which was all about the study and care of historic objects: “I did the course because I wanted to go behind the scenes at the museum,” she confesses.

Her show in Lyme Regis is called ‘Charm in Memento’ and is inspired by the museum’s collection of historic holiday souvenirs produced for tourists visiting Lyme Regis in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“I’m often horrified by the poor quality of modern holiday souvenirs,” she shudders. “This is an attempt to develop a collection of contemporary souvenirs that match the best of the old tradition.”

Her work for this show demonstrates the process of creating a new series of porcelain brooches, each bearing an image of a natural object, or fragment of an object, that is iconic of Lyme Regis. Given Lyme’s renown as the foremost place for fossil hunting on the Jurassic Coast, these rightly include ammonites, shells, seaweeds and other pieces of flotsam and jetsam.

‘Charm in Memento’ is the latest in a series of exhibitions curated by artists who took part in the ‘re:collection’ collaboration between Lyme Regis ArtsFest and the Museum. In total, nearly 50 artists have been involved in re:collection, including printmaker Hugh Dunford Wood, photographer Peter Wiles and stone balancer Adrian Gray.

Caroline’s exhibition at the Rotunda Gallery, at Lyme Regis Museum runs until 30 March (11am-4pm, Wednesday-Sunday),. See more of Caroline’s work at her website

How it’s done

Caroline uses porcelain clay, which she rolls out and cuts into shapes. She has an extensive collection of vintage pastry cutters, which are ideal for making buttons and hanging decorations. She dries the clay and then gives it a first firing in her electric kiln.

For the patterns, she draws her designs on paper and makes photocopies, which she then sends to a specialist printers’ workshop in Stoke-on-Trent. The workshop turns her photocopies into platinum transfers backed with a clear covercoat.

Caroline then soaks the transfers in water and applies them to the porcelain, which she might also have dipped in glaze. She then fires them at 750 degrees centigrade. The transfer backing burns away and the platinum fuses with the clay and any glaze, if present, so that the design becomes a durable and permanent part of the piece.